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Analysis: Buses Bill powers could help drive up service standards

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Passengers affected by Transport for London’s proposal to shift the 271 bus route’s terminus about 100 yards in Highgate may participate in a public consultation.

Bus one

Bus one

Outside London anyone with a public service vehicle operator’s licence can register any new bus service they please with the Department for Transport’s traffic commissioners and later change or scrap it simply with 56 days’ notice.

In London TfL sets routes, frequencies, fares and vehicle types with operators competing off-road by tendering to run routes.

Elsewhere, at an extreme, rival buses race each other on busy routes, while quieter areas languish unserved. This gap in service opened up following deregulation of bus services outside the capital in 1985.

This split could be about to change with the forthcoming Buses Bill intended to give councils greater influence over bus provision in their areas.

Government statistics published in December showed bus use in London has soared by 31%, accounting for 2.36 billion bus journeys in 2014-15, while the rest of England only 2.28 billion.

Councils elsewhere look enviously at the capital’s (relatively) high frequency and reasonably priced buses and want their own versions. Devolution deals and the Buses Bill have suddenly made this look possible.

All devolution deals so far include powers to franchise bus services – the system used in London – although councils may reserve these as a ‘stick’ while negotiating partnerships, as Cornwall Council is doing.

The Sheffield City Region has also been developing a partnership between operators, although this has brought its own challenges around comptetition.

Transport minister Andrew Jones said the bill would create optional powers for councils to franchise buses or more easily set legally binding standards for partnerships with operators.

Bus two

Bus two

Mr Jones said: “Some of the things that Londoners have come to expect can be difficult to deliver in a fully deregulated bus market, such as a single fare structure across different operators and transport modes.”

Councils have in theory had franchising powers since 2000 but these proved unworkable and the only attempt made to use them, by the North East Combined Authority, failed last autumn at a cost of £2.6m. 

Jonathan Bray, director of the Urban Transport Group – which represents metropolitan transport authorities – said franchising does not mean these areas would instantly get a bus network like London’s, but “it’s a necessary first condition, you can’t do any of these other things with fragmented networks”.

Mr Bray says: “Franchising gives you the opportunity to give passengers what they want, which is a simple network with one ticketing system across all services.

“It means you can plan so that bus routes for example to serve an area being developed but not yet complete, or link areas of worklessness to jobs and education.”

But use outside of metropolitan council areas has fared better, at 9% ahead of the 2004-05 level.

But some of that depended on councils using powers to subsidise commercially unviable services they deem socially necessary, for example to villages, and outlying estates and in the evenings or on Sundays.

Financial pressures have cut a swathe through those. Pressure group the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) last month identified £27m of proposed cuts to the £239m of council bus subsidies.

Among these, Lancashire CC will end subsidies from April, endangering 129 routes, although a £2m community transport fund will fill some gaps.

Essex CC will save some £1.5m through operators running previously subsidised services commercially, although 26 routes will go, while Lincolnshire CC has reinstated a subsidy after a proposed £2.2m cut led to public complaints, following an unexpected windfall in the final funding settlement.

Another partial solution to financing buses is Total Transport, advocated in the Local Government Association’s Missing the Bus report last year, under which councils would co-ordinate budgets comprising bus subsidies, bus service operators’ grant (a central government fuel subsidy), non-emergency health transport and school transport to spend this combined sum more effectively. There are 42 pilots in progress.

CBT campaigns head James MacColl says: “We support Total Transport and have also called for a connectivity fund with contributions from government departments that benefit from buses but do not fund them – for example, if people cannot get to hospitals the NHS has to lay on transport.”

Improved bus services are not an end in themselves. A reliable, popular network can deliver environmental improvements in reduced car traffic congestion and better air quality.

There are also social inclusion gains. A 2012 Age UK report said: “Bus services provide a lifeline for many older people”, enabling them to lead active and independent lives and providing “an obvious benefit to individuals [and] to the public purse if health and social care services are not needed because people are healthier”.

Mr MacColl says: “You find people who lose bus services can’t get to hospitals or see their families. We have people calling us all the time who are very worried about this.”

He thinks franchising is an idea whose time has come: “People have started noticing the difference between buses in their cities and what London has been able to do, and want the same.”

In some shires the wait for a bus is about to become indefinite, and in cities networks can be unnecessarily complex to use.

Such obstacles encourage driving among the better off and isolation for others.

It remains to be seen whether the Buses Bill finally helps councils crack this problem.




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