The forthcoming Buses Bill will give councils outside London ‘more freedom to run their own bus services’, including franchising, transport minister Andrew Jones has confirmed.
Mr Jones announced the plans for the ‘enabling Bill’ in Westminster today, however his speech only committed the Government to honouring 'devolution deal commitments' on franchising services, suggesting those councils without a devolution arrangement may miss out on the new powers.
He also stressed: 'Local areas will need clear arrangements for ensuring the powers are used accountably, the capability to meet their promises to passengers, and a system that does not disadvantage bus services that cross local authority boundaries.'
The Bill would require companies to share information about routes, fares and timetables, which the Government said will pave the way for new apps to be developed, helping passengers plan their journeys.
Mr Jones said it would introduce new arrangements for local authorities and bus operators to enter into partnerships as well, while removing the current legal requirement that 'a quality partnership scheme must always involve new infrastructure'.
By allowing councils and operators to agree their own standards for all services, 'the bill will build on the strengths of existing partnership arrangements while addressing their weaknesses, including the weakness that allows a small minority of operators to block improvements that have been agreed by the majority', he said.
Transport minister Andrew Jones has responsibility for bus policy
The Department for Transport says these ‘will be given the power to set standards for local buses and introduce standard ticketing rules over wider areas, paving the way for Oyster-style schemes’.
But Mr Jones acknowledged that 'sometimes there will be a case for more radical change'.
'For example, some of the things that Londoners have come to expect can be difficult to deliver in a fully de-regulated bus market, such as a single fare structure across different operators and transport modes,' he said.
The minister said the Government would therefore ‘honour our devolution deal commitments to give local authorities the choice to use new powers to franchise bus services in their areas’.
Mr Jones said the quality contract scheme process ‘has proved more time consuming, costly and challenging than anybody could ever have imagined’.
Although he did not mention the controversial issue of compensation for operators directly, Mr Jones added that ‘local authorities will need to work closely with the operators in their area to manage the process in the best interest of passengers, particularly during periods of transition which will need to be handled with care’.
The minister said he could not say ‘exactly’ when the Bill will be put before Parliament, adding, ‘there’s plenty of opportunity to shape the content’.
But he said: ‘We are hoping for Royal Assent by early next year.’
Think tank Transport for Quality of Life welcomed the announcement. Director Ian Taylor said: ‘Outside London, the current deregulated free-for-all for bus services makes it impossible for any other area to have a single fare structure across different bus operators and local rail services.'
However he warned that it was 'crucial that these new powers are available to all local councils, not just to the favoured few which have signed a devolution deal with the Government'.
'The Government should also give powers to local authorities to operate all local buses through their own municipal bus companies, as in countries such as Germany, France and Austria where the evidence shows that publicly-owned operators deliver better services at lower cost to the public purse.’
James MacColl, head of campaigns at Campaign for Better Transport, said: 'We welcome the Minister’s commitment that passengers should receive better information about their journey with bus operators making data about routes, fares and times more open and accessible. This will make using the bus much easier and will also help to maximise modal shift from cars to buses.
'With the scale of cuts we are now seeing urgent action must be taken by the Government and we hope the Buses Bill will ensure buses have the funding they need and deserve.'