The thing about major pieces of legislation on UK city devolution is that you wait decades for one to arrive, but then two come along at once. And just like buses, while the first may be packed and likely to make its journey slowly, the second looks like it may reach its destination more quickly.
As you’ll no doubt have worked out by now, I am of course talking about the Bus Services Bill, which will soon have its third reading in the House of Lords. It may not have been heralded to the same extent as the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act (CLGDA), with its focus on high profile metro mayors, Northern Powerhouses and Midlands Engines. But the immediate impact of the Buses Bill on the lives of millions of English city-dwellers will probably be greater than anything the CLGDA can deliver in the next few years.
Essentially, the Buses Bill will give combined authorities (even those without a metro mayor) the power to franchise bus services, which London alone has held in recent decades – setting out the routes, frequencies and quality standards that councils determine will best support their residents and firms. The idea is that this will help to reduce the complexity and cost that passengers face. Simple fare structures and tickets across cities, with routes and stops closer to where people live and want to go, will have a tangible impact on people’s everyday lives – meaning less strain on their wallets, less time walking to and waiting at bus stops, and opening up journeys they may not have previously made.
Why is this important? As anyone who lives outside London will tell you, catching a bus in most parts of the country can be an expensive and confusing experience. All day tickets bought on one bus-line won’t work on another, while some destinations within a city can still require a brisk 20-minute walk from the nearest bus stop. Knowing when that bus is running and how often can be a struggle to find out, and a shock when you realise how infrequently they do. As a result, passengers are voting with their feet, with fewer and fewer bus journeys taken across English cities beyond London.
Most local bus companies had been owned and run by local councils from the 1930s until 1985. The Transport Act of that year, which deregulated and ushered in the privatisation of these companies, was intended to ‘to halt the decline that has afflicted the bus industry for more than 20 years’ as more people bought cars. But since that Act was introduced, passenger journeys in English metropolitan areas have gradually halved from over 2 billion per year to 1 billion, while in London they held up at around 1.1 billion journeys per year before growing rapidly to nearly 2.5 billion after Ken Livingstone became London’s first directly elected mayor.
When the new metro mayors take office next May, they will no doubt be keen to address these issues as part of a broader city-region economic strategy, addressing skills, housing and other economic challenges their areas face. But while most of those policies will take years to come to fruition, the Buses Bill (if passed) will enable combined authorities to take immediate action to improve bus services in their places – offering tangible signs of progress for voters who may still be unconvinced about the benefits of devolution. For example, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan gained considerable political capital as a result of being able to enact his ‘Hopper’ fare within months of coming into office, while realistically he may struggle to implement his other election promises over housing and air quality in one term in office.
Beyond the obvious economic, social and environmental improvements that a better bus service would bring, a unified bus system helps develop a shared identity of a place. In Greater Manchester, the Metrolink with its distinctive yellow and grey trams, helps to connect the city not only as a means of transport, but as a symbol shared by those who use it or see it every day, from Oldham to Altrincham. A similarly unified bus network would reach further and faster than any Metrolink extension ever could, and would help consolidate the new combined authorities in the minds of local residents.
So while the ongoing developments around the new metro mayors will continue to grab the headlines in the months running up to the election next May, local leaders should not overlook the opportunities that the Buses Bill could offer in having an immediate impact in the everyday lives of the communities they represent – as well as to convince potentially sceptical voters of the advantages that devolution can offer.