The Bus Services Bill: a new era for buses?

Lianna Etkind, public transport campaigner, for the Campaign for Better Transport, examines the possibilities that the new government legislation may bring for local authorities.

The last few years have been pretty grim for buses and those who care about them. Since 2010, over 2,400 local authority supported bus services have been reduced, altered or withdrawn, leaving thousands of people cut off from their local communities and amenities.

However, there’s good news on the horizon. Thirty years after the government deregulated bus services, the much-anticipated Bus Services Bill could transform the way bus services are managed. Proposals in the Bill would give local authorities powers to plan and manage their bus services, and introduce tickets that could be used across operators. With better managed bus services, integrated into the wider transport network, more people would have a real alternative to the car.

The Bus Services Bill offers local authorities three new ways to manage local buses: through advanced quality partnerships, enhanced partnerships or franchising. These would allow the local authority to agree standards regarding, for example, punctuality and frequency, and to set fares. The Bill would also compel bus companies to share the information on passenger numbers, timetables and fares, enabling the development of new journey planning apps.

While the Bill will only apply to England, there are plans for a Wales Bill and a Transport Bill in the Scottish Parliament which could deliver similar powers in Wales and Scotland.

Franchising success
In London, where Transport for London (TfL) franchises out routes to different operators, bus use has more than tripled since 1985, while outside London where buses have remained deregulated, use has continued to fall. More bus journeys are now made in London than in the rest of the country put together. Jersey franchises its buses too, although on a very different model to London. It’s been a roaring success there. Passenger numbers have risen by a third in the three years franchising has been operating, and five new routes have been introduced.

All of this is very exciting for local campaigners seeking to win improvements to their local services. Mayoral candidates standing in the May 2017 elections will already be considering how these new powers over buses might attract voters: the Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, has already promised that if re-elected, he will introduce a 50p fare for children across Liverpool’s bus network.

However, it’s important that the Bus Services Bill does not become a wholly urban Act, and brings benefits to rural areas too. The Bill currently proposes that any local authority, or group of authorities, could apply to the Secretary of State to use franchising or enhanced partnership powers. Campaigners in Somerset, Wiltshire and Lincolnshire are already looking at how their local authorities could use the Bus Services Bill to protect local buses, especially in rural areas.

Minimum standards
If the Bill is to be successful in enabling reliable bus services, we want to see a requirement for local authorities to set minimum standards: for example, maximum distance to the nearest bus stop, minimum bus frequencies, or a requirement for bus drivers to undertake disability equality training. We would also like to see the Bill require local authorities to conduct a thorough needs assessment for public transport, and to show they have taken steps to meet this need.

This will help ensure that communities are not cut off from services such as healthcare and education. The duty to assess need already exists in case law, and campaigners have used this legal protection to save local services. The Bus Services Bill is an opportunity to clarify this duty. We also think it’s vital that passengers are involved: nothing about us without us, as the slogan has it! So we’re demanding that the Bill enable an independent body to ensure passenger representation and to take up complaints.

Long-term funding
Finally, there’s no point having the powers to manage excellent bus services if all the local buses have been cut. Local funding for buses has been reduced by over £78 million since 2010, and not a week goes by without reports that yet another village has been left without public transport. Many bus services – particularly in rural areas – could not exist without the Bus Service Operator’s Grant, disbursed from central government. But this funding stream will no longer be ringfenced to be spent on local bus services after April 2017.

Every other major transport mode – roads, rail, cycling and walking – has a government investment strategy. We’re calling for a Bus and Coach Investment Strategy alongside the Bill. It’s time buses, which carry more passengers than any other kind of public transport, had their own strategy for a long-term, funded future.

The Bill is currently being discussed in the House of Lords, and it’s likely to be debated in the Commons in the Autumn. The government will feel under pressure to ensure that this long-anticipated Bill is passed in good time for the Mayoral elections in May 2017. After years of bus services outside London atrophying, it’s high time local authorities had the powers to deliver the dependable, attractive bus network we so sorely need.

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