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Roads to Nowhere

The Bus Services Bill – a new era for the UK’s bus services?

Lianna Etkind's picture
Smiling woman on bus

Last week was Catch the Bus Week – a national week dedicated to encouraging people to give the bus a go. In Nottingham, bus drivers were donning silly wigs; in Lincoln, passengers have been baking fantastic bus cakes. Meanwhile in Westminster, peers have been gathering in the chamber of the House of Lords to debate the Bus Services Bill. The Bill holds out enormous promise for England’s bus passengers, giving local authorities new powers to set standards and plan joined-up bus networks.

The proposals in the Bill would enable local authorities, if they choose, to have a greater say over the running of buses in their area. If the majority of bus operators in an area agree, local authorities would be able to set up an ‘enhanced partnership scheme’. This would enable a joined-up ticketing scheme across all bus operators, with a single fares structure. Local authorities and operators could agree on joint branding and marketing across the bus fleet.

Franchising

Franchising would enable local authorities to go a step further and plan their bus network, asking operators to bid to run bus services in the area. In effect, it means that instead of bus companies competing with each other for passengers along the same stretch of road, they’ll compete with each other to be able to run buses along that road. Local authorities would be able to set routes, fares, driver training, bus livery, and timetables. London introduced bus franchising in 1985, and it’s been hugely successful. Fares are low compared to the rest of the country, and passenger numbers have grown year on year. Jersey also introduced franchising in 2013, on a very different model to London: in a mere three years, they’ve seen passenger numbers grow by a third, and routes which used to be summer-only operate now all year round.

What are we calling for?

Last year, scores of you contacted us to let us know what you wanted to see in the Bus Services Bill. Many people wrote passionately about the need to stop bus cuts: about how fed up they were of not having regular, reliable services; or about how their teenage children were stuck, bored, on a Saturday night because there was no public transport to get them into town. While Parliament has started debating the Bus Services Bill, bus cuts have continued unabated: this July, almost half of Oxfordshire’s subsidised bus routes will stop due to council cuts.

Inspired by your responses, we are calling for four main changes.

Firstly, we’re supporting Lord Berkeley’s amendment on Meeting social need. We would like to see the Bill make clear that local authorities have a duty to assess the social needs of their residents, and to secure the transport services appropriate to meeting that need. This duty, in fact, has been established in case law (the Three Rivers case); and has been used by campaigners in Cambridgeshire to fight bus cuts. However, we think that having this duty placed on the statute books will clarify to local authorities that their first duty in planning buses is to connect people to jobs, to healthcare, and to education; and help convince them to protect socially necessary bus routes.

Secondly, we’re calling for a Bus and Coach Investment Strategy. Buses carry more people than any other mode of public transport. Last year there were more than a billion bus journeys – that’s more than double the number of train journeys. But bizarrely, buses are the only mode of transport without a government investment strategy. We now have a Roads Investment Strategy, a Rail Investment Strategy, and this year the Government will be publishing its Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy. It’s high time that we stopped treating buses as the poor relation, and put in place a long term plan to grow the industry.

Thirdly, we’d like more clarity in the Bill on enabling local authorities to set minimum standards for buses in their area - whether on bus frequency or punctuality - and deciding the standards that work best for them.

Lastly, we want to see the Bill provide strong structures of passenger representation. In the rail industry, bodies like London TravelWatch and Transport Focus act as a passenger ombudsman, taking up passengers’ complaints and providing an independent voice. Bus passengers too should have the right to ongoing involvement and oversight of their local transport services, not just when a franchise or partnership scheme is being developed.

The Government is keen that the Bill receives Royal Assent in time for the Mayoral elections taking place in cities around the country in May. It’s therefore likely that it will complete its passage through the Lords by the end of this Parliamentary session, ready to begin progress through the House of Commons in the autumn. We’ll be in touch over the summer to let you know how you can support our calls for a strong bill that works for passengers.

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