Leave a comment
Be the first to add a comment.
The change at the top of the Conservative Party ensured that all parties’ manifestos are lined up in support of London-style bus franchising. Whoever wins in Westminster on December 12th, the buck now stops with metro mayors for the quality of bus services in their city — whether they have taken the first concrete steps to introduce London-style franchising or not.
The Conservatives have promised to ‘give city regions the funding to upgrade their bus, tram and train services to make them as good as London’s’. Labour promises new funding for free bus travel for under-25s to any council that introduces franchising (or sets up their own bus company) and will ‘give them resources and full legal powers to achieve this cost-effectively’.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats would encourage ‘local authorities to use their new powers under the Bus Services Act, including franchising powers and repealing the rule preventing local councils from running their own bus companies.’
The Bus Services Act 2017 was a leap for a Conservative Government. Among other things, it opened up the chance for metro mayors to roll back much of the Margaret Thatcher government’s 1986 deregulation of bus services in every city except London. Metro mayors gained powers to move from a free market-led local bus system to a franchised system, like in London.
In the capital, the Mayor — not private operators — sets the routes, fares, frequencies and quality standards of services. Under this system, bus ridership has doubled in London but fallen by half in other major cities (see chart below).
Investments and policy prioritisation since 2000 in London suggest that having a mayor in charge of the buses and responsible to voters for them, tips the balance of policy decisions in favour buses and bus users over cars.
Control over the buses in London means that the uncertainty that holds back difficult but important transport decisions is much lower than in other cities. From the congestion charge to the extension of bus lanes, the Mayor of London is unique in knowing exactly how bus service levels and fares will respond to reduced congestion and higher demand. These kinds of ambitious, long-term, and proven pro-bus policies that improve the quality, efficiency and equitability of the bus network will be lower risk and easier to make for metro mayors who have franchised their bus services and reap the financial and electoral gains from them.
The greater certainty about the return on investing to generate stronger benefits from buses – better access to jobs, training courses, schools, hospitals and better, cleaner air to breathe – will make it a more rational and appealing choice for metro mayors with franchised buses when setting their budgets. Funding levels for bus services in London indicate this has been the case for every Mayor of London so far (see chart below).
Franchising powers within the Bus Services Act 2017 open up the reintegration of buses into social, economic, environmental and financial policy for metro mayors. But the departure of George Osborne and Patrick McLoughlin in 2016 meant that the first metro mayors came into office in 2017 with these new powers facing renewed ministerial suspicion of using franchising.
Faced with the already uphill task of being the first ever holders of their office and starting from scratch in building up the institution and its capacity, it is understandable that the complex and risky job of re-regulating an industry with little support from central government was put on the back burner for some.
The mayors of Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region have pushed on despite this, investing significant time and resources to prepare for and develop the highly detailed and legally watertight cases for franchising required.
The political environment is now aligned in support of franchising and the institutions of mayoral combined authorities are nearly three years old. To deliver on one of their core responsibilities – improving transport – they must be prepared to franchise.
The ball is now firmly in the metro mayors’ court. As Centre for Cities argues in its recent report, Delivering Change: How franchising enables mayors to deliver a high quality bus service, those that have not yet started the formal process of preparing a strategic business case to introduce franchising should do so now. Franchising bus services will give mayors the power to support cleaner, greener and more equitable travel in their cities, which supports thriving business and communities.
For mayors less swayed by the benefits franchising might bring to bus services, cold political calculation should lead them to support bus franchising plans. The problems and failures of local bus services – journeys slowed down by traffic, fare rises, service reductions, toxic emissions — that affect voters and businesses will now be laid, rightly, at the mayor’s door.
Whether by omission or commission mayors are now responsible. Under the next Government, if they don’t franchise services, metro mayors will be stuck with responsibility without power, local government’s prerogative in recent decades. If they’re going to get the blame, as they will, then they might as well be in control too to deal with these problems or at least deserve the criticism they get.
Be the first to add a comment.