LGC’s essential daily briefing.
The latest in the saga surrounding Surrey’s leader: Hodge to face no confidence vote
Today’s job news: London finance director to become unitary chief
Today’s help and advice: Four steps to improving community cohesion
The further reaches of Freeview still sometimes yield a repeat of Reg Varney’s inexplicably popular 1970s sitcom On the Buses.
Bus use was widespread when Mr Varney’s driver character strove to outwit his inspectors.
Nowadays it is more like ‘off the buses’, except in London which, according to this month’s Department for Transport bus use figures, accounted for just over half of all England’s bus journeys in the final quarter of 2016 – at 558 million out of 1.13 billion.
London’s regulated system sees competition occur off the road. Transport for London puts groups of routes to tender and chooses an operator to run services.
Competition elsewhere has, since 1985, taken place on the road. Private operators may run any service they please, while councils can subsidise routes judged socially necessary – for example to villages or outlying suburbs – but not deemed commercially viable by bus companies.
ATCO found 36% of top tier councils had cut bus subsidies in the past year, leaving many holders of free bus passes with no buses on which to travel. It also found, on average, a 2.3% increase in spending would be needed in 2017-18 to maintain the current service levels.
Meanwhile, councils face much greater difficulty in controlling the costs of home to school transport for pupils who live beyond walking distance of their school, or who have special educational needs.
Complaints from parents about councils cutting these services have increased sufficiently fast to prompt the Local Government Ombudsman to publish a report on how to manage the process.
It cited as the main issues opaque changes to policies, misapplied procedures for considering applications and appeals, and treatment of children not of compulsory school age but with special educational needs.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services in January estimated school transport costs at some £1bn and called for an end to the duty to provide it other than for special needs.
To make matters worse, fading local authority control over term dates and the locations of free schools and academies can make planning school transport nightmarishly complex. Councils face having to provide transport to schools built according to someone else’s plan, on term dates officers did not fix, and at a cost that means saying ‘no’ to residents who have lost commercial bus services altogether.
The Buses Bill, passing through Parliament, raises the prospect of London-style systems being replicated in mayoral combined authorities wanting to take on franchising responsibilities.
However, a clause preventing individual councils from setting up municipal bus companies was reinserted into the bill this week – although Swindon BC last month sold its bus company in the face of mounting losses, reducing the number of council-owned operators to just 11.
Ongoing budget cuts threaten to leave bus services in the depot at a time when upgrading the country’s transport and infrastructure is a key “pillar” of the government’s industrial strategy to make the country more productive.