By Mark Smulian
Metropolitan councils are to try to take control of local bus services under a legal process never previously used.
Passenger transport executives have decided to use the quality contract procedure to gain powers over routes, frequencies and fares.
Other councils are likely to follow suit if the executives are successful.
Delivery of many council policies requires good public transport - for example, bus links for deprived estates, and viable alternatives to car commuting.
But councils have minimal control over bus operators' decisions.
Quality contracts allow councils to tender the franchise to run buses to specified standards in a defined area.
They have never been used because the government has imposed lengthy processes and cumbersome conditions. Despite a slight simplification, it will still take executives two years to secure them, but they have decided the contracts are essential.
Passenger Transport Executive Group assistant director Jonathan Bray said: 'All the PTEs intend to do quality contracts in the course of this parliament. There is ongoing frustration that, despite everything PTEs do to improve bus stations and provide information, 87% of the bus network is commercially run and they have very little influence on its quality.
'Councils might specify routes, maximum fares and first and last bus times for a town, then invite operators to come up with bids and see who was the most imaginative.'
A spokesman for the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which represents the bus companies, said: 'We think a great deal more can be achieved through partnership between councils and bus operators than through these contracts.
'They would require substantial subsidy for services, infrastructure and administration.'
Who runs the buses?
>> Passenger transport executives: Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Strathclyde, Tyne & Wear, West Midlands, West Yorkshire
>> Buses are regulated in London. Elsewhere, commercial firms have sole control but councils can subsidise extra services
>> Quality contracts would enable councils to specify
a network and service standards, and invite tenders.