The long expected Bus Services Bill has been published following its announcement in the recent Queen’s Speech. It aims to grow bus patronage, tackle air quality hotspots, improve bus services for passengers, enable a thriving commercial bus sector and help cities and regions unlock economic growth. It supports the devolution of a variety of powers to English regions to enable them to better plan and manage bus networks including ‘Franchising’ and strengthening arrangements for partnership working in the sector by introducing ‘Enhanced Partnerships’ and ‘Advanced Quality Partnerships’.
It aims to provide a step change in the information available to bus passengers, with technology companies enabled to download ‘open data’ with route and timetable information, allowing them to introduce new apps to benefit passengers. The Bill puts in place a competition recommendation in relation to the bus registration process to give local authorities powers to get information about passenger numbers and the revenue of a service that an operator intends to cancel or has cancelled. It will then be able to provide this data to potential bidders if the authority decides to support the service that has been cancelled.
The Bill will allow areas that have devolution deals with the Government to introduce franchising. Areas with an elected mayor will be able to get the power to bring in bus franchising and say what services should be run in their area. Other councils, beyond the areas with an elected mayor, will also be able to introduce franchised bus services if they get permission from the Transport Secretary.
Existing Quality Partnerships will be made more attractive by removing the need for councils to invest in costly new infrastructure before they can create a partnership, even if it is unnecessary. Such ‘Advanced Quality Partnerships’ enabled by the Bill, can be based on measures taken by the local authority, for example, parking or traffic management policies, in addition to or instead of facilities provided by the authority, such as bus lanes. It broadens the requirements that can be placed on operators to include the marketing of the services themselves and of the tickets and fares available to passengers.
‘Advanced Quality Partnerships’ are separate from the proposed ‘Enhanced Partnership’ powers that will enable local authorities to work with operators to set a vision for bus services in the area and a plan to help achieve those improvements. In these schemes, the bus market in its area remains commercial and proposals must receive majority support from the bus operators affected by them. If they do not, then the proposals cannot be taken forward. The authority will have the legal responsibility for the proposals, but it will expect arrangements to be developed jointly between authorities and operators. Any plans can set standards that some or all local bus services must meet. These can include the timing or frequency of services, vehicle standards and ticketing products to be accepted. The partnership proposals cannot dictate the price of operators’ own tickets or compel them to run services that they do not wish to operate.
FirstBus has welcomed the stronger arrangements to allow local government to work in partnership with operators to improve local bus services in the Bill. MD, Giles Fearnley, said, ‘We passionately share the aim of national Government and local councils to improve services for all passengers using buses to help solve the UK’s chronic congestion issues, improving air quality and reducing carbon emissions. Our experience in many places including Bristol, Cornwall, Sheffield and Leeds clearly demonstrates that working in strong partnership with local government is the best, quickest and cheapest way to improve services, and attract more people to bus travel. We are delighted the strengthening of partnerships is an option for local authorities, and look forward to working with MPs and peers to ensure that we have legislation that delivers benefits for customers.’
National Express West Midlands noted it has a ‘long history of very successful partnership working’ with Centro, the West Midlands’ transport authority. This has brought many years of improvements to bus services in the region. The operator highlighted that it established the UK’s first Bus Alliance, which commits £150m to improving ticketing, air quality, punctuality, reliability and security for passengers.
Commenting on the Bill, Chair of the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority (ITA), Cllr Roger Lawrence, said, ‘These proposals to devolve more powers to our region would give us a range of effective tools and methods for improving bus services as part of a fully integrated transport network. One of the significant benefits we see in this bill is the ability to further strengthen our existing partnerships with local bus companies to give passengers simplified fares and make sure all our communities benefit from frequent and reliable services. We believe the range of options contained in this proposed legislation can help make sure we have convenient, comfortable and affordable bus travel. That will give people a real and attractive alternative to using their cars, helping to cut the congestion and pollution damaging our local economy and environment.’
The lead for the Urban Transport Group on buses, Frank Rogers, said, ‘This new legislation offers the prospect of a “fresh start” for the bus by giving cities a range of more effective tools with which to improve bus services. The Bill includes a simpler route for city region authorities to franchise networks of bus services in the same way that London does as well as giving us better ways of making the existing deregulated market deliver greater benefits for passengers. This will be the third piece of legislation on buses since 2000 so it’s vitally important that we get the detail right this time in giving us a legal framework with which to improve services which is fair, proportionate and straight forward.’
Campaign for Better Transport’s Head of Campaigns, James MacColl, said, ‘Buses have long been the neglected form of transport, and this Bill starts to put that right. We welcome the Bill as it will give local authorities and the new mayors more powers to plan and manage local bus services, bringing real benefit to local communities. This should allow integrated services with simple, smart ticketing to become the norm. We want to ensure that the Bill helps people and communities in rural areas as well as in cities, they have been hit hardest by local funding cuts to supported bus services. The introduction of new requirements for operators and franchising authorities to release open data on routes, timetables, punctuality and fares, and the new powers for integrated ticketing schemes, will also make using the bus much easier for passengers and give car users a real and affordable alternative.’
‘However, it is critical that funding follows the Bill, and that councils and mayors have the funding needed to make these new powers work. We need to see a national strategy for buses and coaches with long term funding assured, as now happens with roads, railways, cycling and walking strategy.’
Visit https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/524712/the-bus-services-bill-an-overview.pdf to see a summary of the Bill and don’t miss our columnist Roger Davies considering the need for it on page 16.