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The Bus Services Bill isn't just for cities – it could help reduce rural bus cuts

Former campaigner's picture
Single decker bus on a road

Next week, the Bus Services Bill will be debated in the House of Commons, and MPs will have a final chance to make any amendments. More journeys are taken by bus every day than any other mode of public transport. Yet for buses to be in the policy spotlight is a rare event, and one worth celebrating.


Much of the conversation around the Bill has focused on the benefits it will bring to cities, enabling transport authorities like Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) to plan their bus networks, as Transport for London has done for the last twenty years. The Bill enables Mayoral cities to introduce passenger-friendly initiatives like multi-modal and multi-operator ticketing; fare freezes, and introducing city-wide branding across all buses. After decades of decline in bus use outside London, it looks possible that passenger numbers could rise again.

Letting local authorities decide

The potential of the Bus Services Bill lies in the freedom it gives local authorities to decide how to run their bus services. For the few where places where buses are thriving, the best option may well be to do nothing – if it ain’t broke, why fix it? In many places, partnerships will be the best approach. The Bill gives local authorities in partnership schemes the option of taking over bus registration powers from the Traffic Commissioner. For the first time, local authorities will be able to set standards through bus registration, as many already do for taxi and private hire licensing – for example, by requiring bus companies to provide disability equality training for drivers as a condition of registration.

However, while MPs debate the Bill, the bonfire of the buses continues. Six years of bus cuts have seen whole areas of the countryside left without any public transport. It’s no longer even just rural areas affected – significant sized towns now have whole areas which have no public transport after 5pm, or on a Sunday. Two days ago, Manchester residents found out that one service will be axed and seven will be reduced, with several no longer running at in the early mornings or evening. People who want to travel back home to Bury after a night out in Bolton may now have to fork out £18 for a taxi.

Meanwhile in Torbay, the local bus company has announced that they are ending several routes, including the bus which serves Torbay Hospital. The council face the unappetising decision of stepping in to subsidise the routes from an already-stretched budget, or see their residents struggle to get to work, to healthcare appointments or simply out the house.

Turning back the tide of bus cuts

Councils now have an unprecedented opportunity to use powers in the Bus Services Bill to not only protect bus routes, but potentially to introduce or re-introduce new routes. Without spending new money.

Think that sounds crazy? The island of Jersey introduced bus franchising in 2013. Three years later, they’d reintroduced 5 new bus routes. They’d increased the frequencies on several services. But perhaps most impressively of all, through cross-subsidising routes, they’d saved £800,000 a year.

Under new powers in the Bill, local authorities can start to plan buses as a network, rather than as individual routes. Bringing together socially necessary routes with busier commercial routes could ensure the long-term viability of the former.

Looking beyond London

Young people wait at a bus shelter

Bus franchising in the UK has historically been the domain of Transport for London, an organisation of over twenty thousand employees and a budget of billions, operating in the densely populated capital. But TfL’s approach is only one of many different possible models. There’s no rule that says that franchising only works in cities – indeed, Jersey has shown that that isn’t the case. Nor must franchising involve the local authority taking on revenue risk – in Jersey, this risk was shared between operator and local authority.

Now is the time for county councils to begin to have conversations with operators about what they could offer under a franchise deal, and how much it would cost. It might be that they decide to that the status quo offers their residents and bus users the best deal – but at least they will know the options, and be equipped to approach the incumbent operators and ask if they can match or better what is being offered under a franchise.

Councils should also consider the options that partnerships offer them. The opportunities afforded through partnerships to introduce multi-operator ticketing, improve information on services and make fares consistent across an area could encourage more people to use buses. In addition, partnerships enable local authorities to set standards on vehicle emissions, a move that will benefit everyone who breathes the air on their streets.

(photo credit: Ian Halsey, Flickr)

Local authorities should have the full range of powers

The Lords amended the Bus Services Bill to make the full range of powers automatically available everywhere, not just in Mayoral authorities. The Government have indicated that it wants to reverse that, and make non-Mayoral authorities apply to the Secretary of State if they want to franchise their buses. We think that real devolution means trusting local authorities to choose the model that’s right for them, and we support making franchising powers automatically available everywhere.

The passage of the Bus Services Bill could usher in a new era where buses are the attractive, popular option in market towns and villages as much as in big Mayoral cities. Where clever planning of bus routes, integrated into the wider transport network, enables people without cars to get out and about, rather than being stuck isolated in their homes.

Already in Cornwall, the local authority has started planning to use enhanced partnerships to join up buses with the rail network, bringing timetables and ticketing together to make it easier to use transport as a whole. Reversing the decline in bus use will need action beyond the bus sector: councils also need to think about how they manage road use and parking in their areas. But over the coming months, I’m looking forward to hearing more stories of local authorities using their new powers to really improve services for bus passengers in their area.

Photo credit: Charlie via Flickr