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Just the ticket, West Midlands metro mayor to get control of buses

Just the ticket, West Midlands metro mayor to get control of buses

🕔30.Jun 2016

Almost 40 years after local authorities lost powers to run local bus services, councils could be back in the driving seat. But the Buses Bill currently in the House of Lords won’t see the return of municipal bus companies, writes Paul Dale.

The intention of the Buses Bill is to provide local authorities with greater flexibility to provide the services their areas require, deliver a better deal for passengers and to cut rush hour congestion, according to the Government.

Bus services across England are currently deregulated, with companies free to choose what services they run, what buses they use and how much they charge, although in London buses are franchised, and companies bid to run the service on a particular route.

Under the proposed legislation all local authorities will be able to enter into ‘enhanced’ partnerships with bus operating companies which would allow councils some control over setting standards for operators, ticketing, branding and service frequencies.

But the Bill expressly forbids the recreation of ‘corporation’ municipal bus companies.

The Bill sets out to “bring back some order to the system, learn from the successful models, reverse the decline in the number of passenger journeys taken, and drive up quality and reliability”.

Only a chosen few local authorities will qualify for the Bill’s most radical devolved measures.

Combined authorities with a directly elected mayor are to be given powers to franchise bus services in their areas, just like London. With these franchising powers mayors will be able to set bus routes, and the cost of fares.

There may be the opportunity for authorities without directly elected mayors to be given the powers to franchise services, though this would only be on approval from the Secretary of State.

The West Midlands metro mayor, to be elected next year, will along with mayors in the North East, Tees Valley, Liverpool city region, Sheffield city region and Greater Manchester enjoy franchising rights and bring for the first time since the early 1980s a measure of direct local government control over buses.

To no great surprise the bus companies do not like the idea of losing the right to set routes and fares and are busy lobbying the Government to scale back the devolution proposals.

Bus operators say they welcome the provision for enhanced partnerships, working jointly with councils, but are opposed to metro mayors being given direct powers to franchise and run services.

Go-Ahead, which operate a large number of services outside and inside London, state that they were yet to be convinced that franchises “will deliver better services for our customers than the existing system of competition between operators and partnership working with local transport authorities”.

A similar response was reciprocated by other operating companies such as First Group and Stagecoach.

At the Lords Second Reading of the Buses Bill, Peers expressed concern that franchising powers would not be extended to all local authorities. Some Labour Peers suggested there was a political dynamic to this decision.

This view was summarised by Baroness Jones of Whitchurch who stated that

[Labour] believe that the powers in the Bill to regulate local bus services via franchising should be made available to all areas that want them, not just combined authorities with an elected mayor. We are concerned that this provision is being made for political reasons, to force authorities to go down the elected mayor route.

Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Lord Bradshaw called the Bill “a lost opportunity” and said his party would seek amendments on issues ranging from lower fares for young and disadvantaged people, air quality and support for county councils, particularly in rural areas.

Lord Ahmad, junior transport minister, said the Bill would allow better partnership working between bus operators and local authorities including the ability to set key standards.

It is likely that Labour will seek amendments to promote the following:

  • Extending franchising to make it available to more local authorities;
  • Provision in the Bill to promote accessibility for the disabled;
  • The removal of clause 21 of the Bill, which prevents municipal bus companies being formed in the future.

The Bill also seeks to open access to data, providing public access to timetables, fares, and the location and arrival of services. Such open data already exists nationally with trains and on the entire transport system in London.

According to the Government the overriding aim of the Bill is that it is seeking to increase the number of passengers that use buses and replicate the success of bus partnerships in locations such as Oxford, and the current franchise system in London.

During their promotion of the Bill, Ministers have highlighted the benefits that increased bus use can have on relieving congestion, improving the environment and stimulating the economy.

Franchising is aimed at allowing local authorities greater control over their bus services, which will allow them the extra flexibility to plan and integrate their local transport networks. In the case of Greater Manchester, and eventually the West Midlands, it could assist in enabling the authorities to have a London-style unified ticketing system for local trains, trams and buses.

Without buses, rush hour congestion in city centres would be 21 percent higher costing millions of pounds in lost time, according to Roads Minister Andrew Jones.

He said data about fares, timetables and routes would become openly available so software developers can produce apps that tell passengers when the next service will turn up. It is estimated this alone will give passengers more confidence to leave their cars at home and use buses instead leading to an extra five million journeys a year.

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