Bus Services Bill 2016

Jessica Aldridge, Browne Jacobson

The London bus network has demonstrated that where bus services are extensive and frequent and passengers have easy access to relevant information, bus patronage can be increased.

Nationally, the number of people using buses has continued to fall year on year, but in London the number of users continues to grow. The reason for this appears to be that the provision of bus services in London is more heavily regulated than elsewhere in England. The Lord Mayor of London and Transport for London determine routes, timetables and fares, and bus operators bid to deliver the services which have been commissioned.

The experience in the London suggests that there is scope for improvement in the legislative approach to bus services in areas outside of the Capital, and it is on this basis that the Bus Services Bill 2016 has been considered.

The Bill was introduced into the House of Lords on 19 May 2016 and is currently at committee stage. The aim of the Bill is to equip local authorities and bus providers in England with the powers and tools needed to improve local bus services and to increase use of the services on offer. It will not apply in London.

The government has said that, if adopted, the Bill would:

  • give elected mayors and local transport authorities the power to improve bus services for the people who use them and thereby increase patronage;
  • provide directly elected mayors with London style powers to franchise local services;
  • help cities and regions unlock opportunity and grow the economy; and
  • enable a thriving and innovative commercial bus sector.

The Bill makes provisions in the following areas:

1. Partnerships
Enhanced partnership powers will enable local authorities to set out a vision for bus services and a plan to achieve any necessary improvements working alongside bus operators. Enhanced partnership schemes will no longer be required to involve the provision of specific facilities such as infrastructure. The schemes can set standards for local bus services, including vehicle specifications, branding and ticketing. Local authorities and bus operators will develop such schemes in partnership, but a scheme will only be adopted if it has sufficient support from both parties.

2. Franchising
The existing quality contract scheme powers will be replaced by new franchising powers, which will allow local authorities to take control of their local bus service. These powers will be modelled around the powers of the Mayor of London and Transport for London.

Directly elected mayors will have the power to franchise their local bus services, with responsibility for determining which bus services need to be provided in their area.

Bus service operators will then bid to provide the chosen services or will apply for a permit to operate a service in addition to those decided by the authority. Any decision to move to a franchised network will be considered by the mayor in a democratic and transparent way.

3. Open data and ticketing
Open data and ticketing will allow passengers easy access to bus services by providing them with relevant information on things such as location, timetables, routes, and fares. Processes will be streamlined and existing ticketing legislation will be future proofed and made easier for passengers to use.

Reaction to the Bill

Reaction to the Bill has been mixed.

The Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) has welcomed the proposals set out in the Bill, stating that it would bring real benefit to the communities. They did stress the importance of funding in making the new powers work, stating that it is critical that funding follows the Bill, and that councils and mayors have the funding needed to make these new powers work. CBT also acknowledged the need for a national strategy for buses and coaches with long-term funding assured, as already happens with roads, railways, cycling and walking.

The Urban Transport Group also welcomed the Bill, declaring it a fresh start, providing a range of more effective tools with which to improve bus services. They did, however, note that this will be the third piece of legislation on buses since 2000 so it is 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.

Impact on local authorities

While there has been a positive reaction from some user groups, the effect on local authorities is unclear. Giving local authorities greater powers without the corresponding resources to implement those powers is unlikely to achieve the desired results. This is particularly true in the current environment of austerity.

It should also be noted that the Bill contains tools, rather than particular solutions. The effect of these tools will depend on specific situations. For example, the provisions in relation to partnership agreements will be dependent, in part, on the private sector bus companies. Local authorities have been working with private sector bus companies for many years with mixed results. The fundamental problem that some bus routes are desirable from a public interest perspective but are not commercially viable, particularly in a rural setting, remains an extant issue and one which is not addressed in the Bill.

The Bill may help support the devolution agenda of the current government. However, experience demonstrates that placing greater responsibilities on public bodies without providing sufficient resources may not deliver the desired improvements for the travelling public.