Efficient, well-run bus services will be an essential component of every city reshaping itself in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Reliable, turn-up-and-go services will link workers to job opportunities and allow people of all ages to access education and local services such as GPs. Low-emission, modern vehicles will be comfortable to travel on and tickets will be affordable, easy to buy and will work with other public transport modes.
To achieve this there needs to be change. Deregulation of local bus services outside London in 1986 changed the focus from providing city-wide networks to running only services that could turn a profit. Today many key decisions about bus provision are taken by private operators and elected officials outside London have few powers to co-ordinate or make the changes that have worked so well in the capital.
The Government recognises this. The Prime Minister – a self-declared ‘bus fanatic’ – has witnessed first-hand during his eight years as London Mayor how successful a regulated bus network can be. Whether ministers are extolling the importance of ‘levelling up’ or ‘building back better’ it is clear that buses are viewed in Westminster as a key part of the post-Covid recovery plan. But their potential can only be realised if control of services transfers to mayors as happened in London two decades ago.
Forward thinking city regions have wrestled with this issue of control for years but the Government is now clear: it wants mayors to act. The National Bus Strategy for England, published in March 2021, says that all local transport authorities and mayoral combined authorities must commit, this summer, to establishing London-style bus franchising or enhanced partnerships. The strategy says these must be in place by April 2022 or in progress (for franchising) and, if not, bus grants and subsidies from central government – which have become increasingly vital during the pandemic – will be withdrawn.
Notwithstanding that they have had these powers since 2017, metro mayors now face a choice. Taking local control of bus networks promises to benefit all those who live and work in their city region. With government support forthcoming and the necessary legislation in place, this is an opportunity for mayors to make a difference for all to see. The Government’s ambitious timetable for change also means they must do this now in order to avoid their area suffering a financial hit.
Instead of franchising, mayors can opt for an enhanced partnership. While a partnership approach might seem the easiest option, meaningful controls over city bus networks can only be achieved through franchising as this report sets out. And the pandemic has served only to reinforce the public benefit case for a better system. Passenger numbers have fallen still further while car use has increased so it is in the public interest to reverse this decline. London has proved this model works; Greater Manchester will be next to implement it and mayors of other city regions too should now start the process to franchise bus services.
Box 1: Government timetable for change
|30 June 2021||All local transport authorities, except Mayoral Combined Authorities that have started the statutory process of franchising bus services, to commit to establishing enhanced partnerships across their entire areas. Local transport authorities that also wish to pursue franchising may do so – but they should commit to implementing enhanced partnerships in the meantime until the franchising process is complete.|
|From 1 July 2021||Only local transport authorities and operators that meet these requirements will continue to receive the Covid-19 Bus Services Support Grant or any new sources of funding from the Government’s £3 billion bus budget.|
|31 October 2021||All local transport authorities to publish a local Bus Service Improvement Plan detailing how they propose to use their new powers to improve services.|
|April 2022||Enhanced partnerships to be in place. New discretionary forms of bus funding from government will only be available to services operated, or measures taken, under an enhanced partnership or where a franchising scheme is in prospect.|
Source: National Bus Strategy, March 2021