Government’s Transport Select Committee has stated the Bus Services Bill is a major opportunity to transform passengers’ experiences of bus services. According to the body, the Bill goes some way in helping overcome the challenges of lack of competition, high fares and cuts in services. It claims local authorities and operators face a number of challenges if they are to provide the affordable, accessible and comprehensive bus networks communities need.
However, there was some dissatisfaction regarding the lack of detail. The Transport Select Committee says its scrutiny of the Bill has been ‘hampered’ by the Government’s failure to publish key secondary legislation and guidance. ‘It is unacceptable for governments to place enabling Bills before Parliament without providing a clear indication of how the powers in the Bill will be used in practice. The Government must produce more detailed guidance on the Secretary of State’s franchising consent powers and the open data provisions without delay. In future, the Government should commit to publishing all relevant draft secondary legislation and guidance when a Bill is introduced into Parliament.’
The Committee welcomes the Government’s approach in giving local authorities the option of implementing new forms of partnership or franchising, based on what is most appropriate to local needs. However, it says the Bill sets out an ‘unnecessarily cumbersome process’ for local authorities (other than mayoral combined authorities) who wish to franchise.
The prohibition on new municipal bus operators is one of the most controversial elements of the Bill, the Transport Select Committee claims. It believes local authorities should have the freedom to set up an operator if that is the best solution for their community. It encourages local authorities to assess the benefits of partnerships and franchising before they consider setting up a municipal bus operator. It calls on the Government to support local authorities in managing any real or perceived conflict of interest which may arise.
The Bill provides an opportunity to transform the collection and provision of information about bus services, according to the Committee, claiming it empowers passengers and allows local authorities and operators to better understand their networks. The Government’s commitment to bring forward regulations on audio-visual standards for buses is encouraging, but needs to be accompanied with a deadline to do so on the face of the Bill.
It is encouraged by the aspects of the Bill which give local authorities the power to introduce simplified systems, such as for ticketing. However, the Bill should encourage rather than hamper innovation, according to the group. It repeats its previous call for the Government to bring into force existing statutory provisions which would allow local authorities to enforce moving traffic offences should they so wish.
Chair of the Transport Committee, Louise Ellman MP, said, ‘Bus services face a number of challenges from deregulation, increasing fares and cuts to services on local routes. Yet they are a vital lifeline for communities up and down the country. In this Bill, there are possibilities for local authorities to implement new forms of partnership or franchising based on what’s best for their communities. But Committee scrutiny of the franchising process was hindered by a lack of information. We expect to see all relevant draft secondary legislation and guidance when the Bill is introduced into Parliament. There is a lot to welcome in this Bill. By giving local authorities new powers and offering practical measures such as improved passenger information and services, these proposals have the potential to bring about significant improvements for both passengers and communities.’
The Committee’s scrutiny of the Bus Services Bill elicited comment from the industry. One of those commenting was Head of Campaigns, Campaign for Better Transport, James MacColl, who said, ‘We echo the views of the Transport Committee in that buses play an important role in connecting communities, especially in rural areas, enabling people to access jobs, shops and other vital public services. Also, the Government must take the opportunity to reverse declining bus use nationally by using the Bill to introduce a national investment strategy for buses, it’s time that buses were neglected no more.’
Interim Chief Executive of Merseytravel and lead Board member for Urban Transport Group on buses, Frank Rogers, said, ‘We are pleased that there is such a broad political consensus around the principle that local transport authorities need a more effective range of powers to improve bus services up to and including the same powers that London has to plan and regulate bus services as a single integrated network. We have long made the case for reform of the bus sector given the key role that bus services can play in underpinning wider city region plans for inclusive growth, reduced congestion and cleaner air. With the right powers we think that we can make further and faster progress in providing passengers with the modern, integrated and easy to understand networks of services that passengers want to see, and currently enjoy in London.’