Do not underestimate the potential impact of the bus services bill

This article appeared in PSE Oct/Nov 16.

If the Bus Services Bill delivers on its promises, then it will give local government the powers to make the best use of existing subsidies to give the public a far better service than they get now, writes Jonathan Bray, director of the Urban Transport Group.

If cities don’t work without good public transport, then one reason why the regional cities are not currently fulfilling their potential is the lack of levers they have to plan and manage their bus networks.

Plan and manage means the ability to ensure there is one network, one brand, one ticket as part of wider integrated public transport networks which are readily understood and easy to use. It means there is one body (democratically accountable locally) where passengers go to find information and give feedback. One body which business knows they can work with to ensure that new developments and regeneration opportunities have bus services from the get go. This is what London takes for granted and what cities from Singapore to Washington, and right across Europe, take for granted too.

However, since buses were deregulated throughout Great Britain (except for London) in 1986, cities have had to negotiate the best they can from local monopolies who have used the monopoly profits to fuel their wider corporate expansion as well as their campaigns (directly or through a network of bought and paid-for surrogates) to block any reform. These monopolies were successful in ensuring that the powers to allow transport authorities outside London to specify and franchise bus networks (essentially the same powers London has) in the 2000 Transport Act and the 2008 Local Transport Act were too complicated and restrictive to use in practice.

The 2016 Bus Services Bill, currently before Parliament, is the third attempt. And it came not from the Department for Transport but from former chancellor George Osborne’s Treasury as part of the dowry for those city-regions that opted for a mayoral combined authority (although the legislation allows for other areas to also gain franchising powers at the government’s discretion).

New powers on offer

Astute politicians have always recognised that you can achieve noticeable impact across a wide area very quickly with relatively modest investment in bus services compared with showier infrastructure schemes. For example, the success of the mayoral concept was partly built off the back of Ken Livingstone’s early focus on buses. Osborne has gone, but the legislation is still on track to be enacted and fully usable by incoming city-region mayors in spring 2017.

And the legislation is not just about a simple route to franchising – it also offers up new powers for those authorities who don’t want to go down the franchising route by extending the limits of what can be achieved from the existing deregulated framework.

These ‘partnership’ options could deliver on many, although far from all (fully integrated ticketing in particular), of the benefits of a franchised approach – but only if operators sign on the dotted line. And with the power of veto that comes with partnership options comes a strong negotiating hand with which to water down outcomes.

Lastly, although the Bill gives transport authorities more powers over what services are provided, it seeks to head off giving local transport authorities the option of running those services directly through blocking the creation of any new municipal bus operations.

Learning lessons for previous legislation

Although the Bus Services Bill as it stands is currently in good shape in terms of the franchising and partnership sections, the lessons of previous legislation is that it only takes a few words to be inserted in the wrong place and it would be rendered as hard to use in practice as its predecessors, which is why we and other local government bodies are watching carefully to make sure it remains intact and on time.

It is important to stress that this legislation matters not just for local transport but far more widely than that. Buses get the jobless into jobs, they give young people access to education and opportunity, and they give access to healthcare whilst contributing to better public health. In short, every pound of subsidy that supports bus services results in multiple public policy benefits.

At present, too much of that precious public subsidy is being lost in the inefficiencies of the current system, through excess profits being diverted elsewhere and over-bussing on core corridors, whilst leaving the local authority to cover the cost of off-peak services. If the Bus Services Bill delivers on its promises, then it will give local government the powers to make the best use of existing subsidies to give the public a far better service than they get now. Do not underestimate the impact that this could have.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

To access the Urban Transport Group’s Bus Services Bill hub visit:

W: www.urbantransportgroup.org/resources/bus/bus-services-bill

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