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COUNCILS NEED MORE INFLUENCE OVER BUSES

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Commenting on the Committee of Public Accounts report 'Delivery Chain Analysis for Bus Services in England*', chair...
Commenting on the Committee of Public Accounts report 'Delivery Chain Analysis for Bus Services in England*', chair of the environment board at the Local Government Association, David Sparks said:

'Councils outside of London are already doing everything within their power to try and encourage bus operators to run reliable services.

'The reported improvements in bus use in the capital are largely down to the powers the Mayor of London has over the transport system. Local authorities outside London, on the other hand, do not have any direct influence over the 80 per cent of bus services provided commercially. Councils outside the capital need greater influence over the local bus network so similar improvements can be made.

'The Local Government Association frequently points out to the Department of Transport the difficulty in finding enough revenue resources to support the subsidised bus routes given the heavy inflation in costs.'

* The report is available here.

Public accounts committee chairman Edward Leigh said today:

'The Department for Transport has got to take more concerted action if it is to persuade people to get out of their cars and on to buses. In almost every part of the country, the 40 year downward trend in bus usage continues.

'London stands apart from the rest of the country, with bus usage in the capital having soared by a third in recent years. I congratulate Mayor Livingstone on the commitment to improving bus services shown by him and Transport for London. This success story is also the result of more public subsidy, better bus services and congestion charging.

'It is far more difficult to turn things around in the unregulated bus market outside the capital. The department must rely on the actions and commitment of local authorities who, in turn, can't directly influence operators in respect of their commercial routes.

'This doesn't mean that all the Department can do is stand on the touchline mildly exhorting the players to up their game. It can and should provide strong leadership. It needs to look hard at the mechanisms by which public subsidy and concessionary fares deliver increased bus usage. It must concentrate the minds of the biggest local authorities and those with most congested roads by agreeing demanding targets for bus growth. The local authorities with feeble bus growth rates should learn from stronger performers. And the Department must do everything it can to encourage local authorities to work together and with the bus operators to make the bus an attractive and reliable way to travel.'

Mr Leigh was speaking as the committee published its 43rd Report of this Session, which examined performance against the PSA target, the measures needed to strengthen the delivery chain and to overcome barriers outside London, and how the department could better support and incentivise local authorities to stimulate bus usage.

Bus usage has been in steady decline in England since the 1950s, as a consequence of rising economic prosperity and increased car ownership. But growth in car usage has led to increased congestion and vehicle emissions which contribute to climate change. In 2000, as part of its ten-year transport strategy, the government set a Public Service Agreement target for increasing bus usage (PSA3) which it amended in 2002 and 2004, to increase bus and light rail usage by 12% between 2000 and 2010, whilst at the same time achieving growth in every English region.

Five years after a PSA target was first set overall growth in bus and light rail usage in England seems likely to reach the national target level by 2010, mainly because of the substantial increase in bus passenger numbers in London since 2000-01. The increase in London can be attributed to the commitment of the Mayor and Transport for London, increased public subsidy, congestion charging and enhanced bus services. Usage in all other regions has declined, however, and it seems unlikely that the target for growth in every region will be achieved.

To achieve wider change in bus usage, the department and local authorities have limited leverage outside London to influence the commercial operators who provide 80% of bus services in a deregulated market. The department needs to provide strong leadership, to use the full range of measures available to stimulate growth in demand, including the direction of subsidy, and to use all opportunities to encourage local authorities and operators to work together to improve the network of bus services, their reliability and quality.

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