Emily Yates, co-founder of the Association of British Commuters, calls for the urgent release of guidance promised by the Department for Transport in the National Bus Strategy.
Local authorities across England have been left in dire straits as the Department for Transport (DfT) has failed to provide the guidance it promised in the National Bus Strategy.
They now have just months left to commit to complex arrangements on the future of their bus networks, or be cut off from vital funding streams and government support.
The first piece of guidance on Enhanced Partnerships and franchising is now a matter of urgency, as local authorities have to commit to one route or another by 30 June. Further guidance on Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs) and socially necessary services should also be published as soon as possible, as local authorities will have very little time with all the facts before them before the deadline for improvement plans at the end of October.
Bus campaigners fear that the vague requirements of the National Bus Strategy could set the scene for the next experiment in bus deregulation. In the words of Matthew Topham from Better Buses for West Yorkshire: ‘Not only has the National Bus Strategy failed to reverse the massive imbalance of power between local politicians and private operators, it has actively reinforced it by pressuring councils to make key decisions, under threat of funding cuts, without sufficient guidance or time.’
Under the Bus Services Act 2017, the one Enhanced Partnership that has been formed in Hertfordshire took twelve months to agree, while the process of franchising in Greater Manchester has been costly and difficult – and is even now being challenged in court by Stagecoach.
Stagecoach Manchester is celebrating 25 years with a special livery bus featuring 30 long-serving members of staff
And yet local authorities across England are now being forced to make these agreements amidst local elections, a global pandemic and without any government guidance in front of them.
The first piece of guidance must urgently:
Explain how to begin the franchising process and make it easier
Combined Authorities with an elected mayor have the power to begin franchising their buses, but the National Bus Strategy is extremely vague on what actions are required by the end of June. The Department for Transport must urgently follow through on the Strategy’s commitment to making the franchising process easier, as the provisions of the Bus Services Act 2017 have been shown to be inadequate for the task.
Provide clear advice on moving from Enhanced Partnerships to franchising
The National Bus Strategy forces the vast majority of local authorities to sign up to an Enhanced Partnership within just two months. Choosing this route under the threat of losing funding must not make it harder to switch to franchising later. In the meantime, the DfT should prioritise granting the automatic right to franchising to all local authorities.
Clarify the rules around municipal ownership
Despite acknowledging the need to consult on the ban on municipal ownership, the National Bus Strategy is proceeding without the full range of options for bus services. The guidance should enshrine a path for local authorities to set up their own municipal company later; and clear advice for those that wish to purchase an existing operator (already possible under the current system).
Decide the issue of revenue risk
The guidance needs to be really clear about revenue risk and how it will be mitigated, which will shortcut a lot of messy negotiation. Conditions should be decided nationally and any risk borne by local authorities must be back-stopped by the Government.
The need for guidance does not end there. The deadline for Bus Service Improvement Plans is also looming and local authorities are desperately short on the detail they need to come up with plans for a huge expansion of services.
Edward Leigh from Smarter Cambridge Transport shared his concerns: 'The guidance must simplify and clarify the steps local authorities must go through to set up multi-operator ticketing, integrated timetables (bus–bus and bus–rail), supplementary services (additional days, hours or frequency to existing commercial services), service level agreements (to cover bus users in the event of service disruption), and much else.'
There’s also a desperate need for visibility of future funding if local authorities are to be able to confidently make commitments. Edward Leigh continues: 'Most importantly, the government must provide adequate funding to support local authorities through this transition. It must also set out a framework that will provide local authorities consistent funding for the long-term to support the envisaged expansion of bus services. Ideally that would derive from hypothecated revenues from a national road user charge.'
The twin problem of continued deregulation plus a lack of funding threatens to impact most significantly on the rural bus crisis, which has been completely neglected by the National Bus Strategy.
Disappointingly, Baroness Vere, minister for buses, has expressed a very negative response to the CPRE’s proposal of Swiss-style bus timetabling, guaranteeing an hourly bus to every village. So far, the DfT seems to be indicating a preference for demand-responsive transport, for which there is a lack of evidence that it will do anything to improve ridership, or reduce car dependency in the long term.
The National Bus Strategy has created a complex and unbalanced negotiation, where nobody quite understands the parameters. The lack of skills in some local authorities puts them at a serious disadvantage in negotiating these contracts, especially when the Big Five bus companies who control 80% of the market have access to the best consultants, lobbying power and – as Stagecoach has demonstrated – the threat of legal action.
At last month’s Transport Select Committee, it was unnerving to see Graham Vidler from the Confederation of Passenger Transport describe Enhanced Partnerships as ‘very fluid’ and ‘really flexible concepts’, suggesting the potential for bus companies to dominate the process with their own interests.
Baroness Vere has claimed that the National Bus Strategy puts passengers at the centre. If we are to believe this, we need to see the DfT release its guidance as a matter of urgency. How else will plans get started and the public be able to participate in the promised consultation process?
Despite promising a lot, the National Bus Strategy looks like a recommitment to bus deregulation; where the limitations of Enhanced Partnerships and lack of government guidance will stand in the way of an integrated transport system.
With thanks to Smarter Cambridge Transport, Better Buses for West Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear Public Transport Users Group, and Better Buses for South Yorkshire for discussing their concerns on this issue.
Emily Yates is co-founder of the Association of British Commuters