Today the Department for Transport’s Annual Bus Statistics were published and they made for pretty grim reading. The headline figures showed a fall of 27 million passenger bus journeys taken in England since last year.
Government figures show Bus mileage as a whole decreased by 0.6 percent, which is worrying in itself, but most stark were the historical figures that show that since 2005, English local authorities supported buses mileage has decreased by a huge 55 million miles. The annual bus stats also show how much bus fares have increased with local bus fares in England increasing by 61% on average between March 2005 and March 2015.
Couple that with the threat of huge subsidy cuts to buses in George Osborne’s Spending Review and it is clear that our buses are in crisis. So where do we go from here?
The Buses Bill, announced by the new Government in May but yet to be introduced in Parliament, is intended to complement the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill which will give new executive powers to cities like Manchester with the creation of new directly elected Mayors. Under the Buses Bill the mayors, and other authorities like Cornwall where devolution deals are agreed, will then have the potential to implement ‘London style’ franchising over local buses.
Coincidently this Bill that will make major changes to the regulation of bus services will be presented to Parliament exactly 30 years since the 1985 Transport Act deregulated buses across the country. While this Bill was unexpected, it is potentially a great opportunity for passengers to see improvements in their bus services, and for buses to play a wider environmental role.
Campaign for Better Transport wants our cities, towns and countryside to be more liveable, for environmental damage to be to reduced, our quality of life improved, and sustainable local economies supported. We therefore want to see the Bill maximise modal shift from cars to buses, in rural areas as well as in cities, and promote the implementation of socially important measures like reduced bus fares for young people and part time workers. Having asked our supporters what they want to see in the Bill, we received many contributions, from one liners - “we want to see buses in Warrington after 7pm” - through to detailed manifestos. The majority supported reforming the current system, in particular to allow authorities to plan bus and wider public transport services as a coherent network, and to allow for multi-operator and multi-modal ticketing.
We still don’t know exactly what will be included in the Buses Bill but from the background document released by DfT this week we now have a fair idea. Clearly it will have a central focus on providing franchising powers for local authorities, so they can plan networks properly and introduce simple, unified fares structures. DfT is clearly intent on giving local authorities a wide range of tools to achieve these ends, including strengthening partnerships, but the toolbox should include the ability to franchise services where the authority judges that this is the best way to achieve this. Our view is also that those objectives - simple ticketing and efficient network planning - are difficult to achieve, at least at present, without some kind of franchising. The background document makes clear that “franchising” need not be solely the London “gross cost” model, but can encompass other approaches including “net cost” tendering with stronger operator involvement.
There is much that can be achieved without new legislation and there are many examples of bus operators and local authorities working very well together. However, many areas passengers and communities are frustrated that simple but important improvements such as simplified fares structures (multi operator and multi modal ticketing), better marketing of public transport networks as a whole, and better and longer term planning of networks are just not happening.
Franchising is unlikely to be the desired model for bus service delivery in all areas and that’s why it’s important for the Buses Bill to strengthen regulation around partnerships.
The background document offers some ways of doing this, including the possibility of devolving bus registration powers from Traffic Commissioners to local authorities, and also some competition powers. This has the benefit of bringing together the different regulations governing bus services, so the local authority can for example apply specific criteria to the granting of registrations such as participation in multi operator smart ticketing.
While this Bill has a focus on urban areas, rural areas that have been hit so hard by local authority funding cuts to supported bus services must also benefit from it.
One approach we’ve suggested would be to require local authorities to conduct effective assessments of need for public transport in their areas. Many local authorities are simply not doing this, meaning that when cuts to tendered services are implemented often whole communities are being cut off. Such a requirement for authorities to show they have considered this need will then ensure there is better strategic planning of tendered services and will allow a broader view than simply focusing on short term metrics like the cost of subsidy per passenger.
This Bill will have its supporters and opponents inside and outside of Parliament. But it’s also clear, even before the Bill has been published, how many groups and organisations see this as an vital opportunity.
Recently Campaign for Better Transport hosted a roundtable meeting with a broad and diverse group of charities and NGOs to discuss the Buses Bill. Representatives from over 20 different organisations turned up on a rainy Thursday including from Age UK, the National Pensioners Convention, the Intergenerational Foundation, The Ramblers, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and Guide Dogs. All of these are organisations with a strong stake in seeing improvements to bus services to help the people they represent and serve. They see the Bill as an opportunity to ensure that buses are pushed much higher up the political agenda.
Critically, though, they see that the Bill has to come with money. If the Buses Bill gives local authorities more powers over bus services, but comes with further cuts to bus funding through Bus Service Operators Grant and local authority revenue funding, it will not halt the decline in bus use that we’ve seen over time. So we will be campaigning with these groups to protect current levels of bus funding in the current Spending Review.
For too long buses have played second fiddle to other modes of transport and this Bill can change this and allow people to show just how much they care about their buses. It is time for everyone with a stake in the future of our buses to get on board and make sure that the legislation supports better bus services, for the communities and the passengers who rely on them.