Commentary on what the Department for Transport annual bus statistics say about councils’ roles
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Something rather significant lurks in the Department for Transport (DfT)’s annual bus statistics – and not just the startling figure that more than half of England’s bus journeys are now made on London’s regulated network.
The significance thing is the top performers for bus journeys per head of population. One would expect more journeys in densely populated urban areas than, say, Rutland CC, which came last.
But the top three are not large conurbations. They are Brighton & Hove, Nottingham and Reading.
What they have in common is councils with unusual commitments to buses. The first has a long-standing formal partnership with Go Ahead’s Brighton & Hove Buses. Nottingham City Council majority owns the main local operator and Reading BC owns its outright, these being now-rare examples of local authority-owned buses.
Many factors influence buses, but this at the least suggests that councils with the will and means can encourage public transport use, either as an alternative to cars, or to staying at home.
Buses can offer councils a means of improving air quality, congestion, employment access, social isolation and much else. But only where they run.
The problem is the Transport Act 1985. Its essentials are unchanged despite some reforms, notably the Bus Services Act 2017.
Outside London competition takes place on the streets. Operators can run - or not - any service they please, as often as they choose at any fare the market will stand. Councils can subsidise additional services from their dwindling discretionary budgets
In London competition is by franchising. Transport for London sets routes, fares, frequencies and vehicle standards and operators bid to run these for a fee.
London’s demographics and congestion would probably encourage heavy bus use even were vehicles still horse-drawn.
But with the capital accounting for 2.23bn of the 4.36bn journeys made in England in 2017-18 it’s no wonder other conurbations look with envy at franchising.
And the Bus Services Act granted their wish. Sort of. It gave combined authorities with mayors powers to franchise - specifically described by the DfT as “akin to the system operated by Transport for London”.
Other transport authorities can apply to the Government for franchising powers case-by-case.
Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s elected mayor Andy Burnham (Lab) intends to use these new powers, while West Yorkshire Combined Authority has endorsed a formal partnership with operators Arriva, First and Transdev.
What resistance though might face franchising, or even formal partnerships that make new financial demands on operators?
Between them Stagecoach, First Group, Arriva, Go-Ahead and National Express control 71% of the local bus market.
They won’t let franchising threaten their positions without a fight.
Mark Smulian, contributor