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New Cash for Buses Means Little if Councils Remain Stripped of Power by Westminster

Councils are at the whim of multinational transport firms when it comes to local transport

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has scrapped the northern leg of the flagship HS2 rail project. Photo: Xinhua/Alamy

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The Midlands and north of England is set to receive £150 million of new funding to improve bus services over the next financial year, the Transport Secretary has announced – a tiny fraction of the £36 billion supposedly saved by scrapping the northern leg of HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester.

The Government says it is the first tranche of £1 billion worth of new funding that it is dedicating to bus services across the north and the Midlands as part of the ‘Network North’ Plan – with further funding allocations to be announced in due course.

Ministers say “it is up to local authorities in partnership with operators to decide how best to use the funding”.  Yet councils will, in reality, have little say in how that money is spent.

Everywhere in England except London and, as of this month, Manchester currently operates a fully-privatised model for running buses. It is a market free-for-all, with councils’ powers largely limited to plugging gaps by handing cash to operators where routes are deemed ‘unprofitable’.

The Local Government Association (LGA) and the Urban Transport Group have called for new powers for councils to decide the way local bus services are delivered to end a “spiral of decline” of services by protecting vital bus routes and reinvesting in local networks. 

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Although none will say no to extra cash, the new report from the LGA and the Urban Transport Group warns that the task of patching and mending gaps in the network is more challenging than ever for local authorities.

They are calling for a review of current legislation that would allow all cities, towns and rural areas in England to have the same rights to introduce bus franchising as those enjoyed by Mayoral Combined Authorities such as Manchester, including:

The report – ‘A Smoother Ride’ – recommends simplifying and improving the franchising process. It is published just as Greater Manchester under Mayor Andy Burnham became the first city region outside London to run franchised (locally-regulated) bus services this weekend, nearly 40 years since deregulation under Margaret Thatcher.

The report recommends lifting the ban in the Bus Services Act 2017 that prevents councils from establishing their own new bus companies. It highlights that in areas with municipally owned bus companies, bus journeys per head of population are well above the English average.

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According to Department for Transport statistics for 2021/2213, after well-regulated London, three areas in England enjoy the highest levels of bus use per head in England. They are Brighton and Hove (110 bus journeys per head of population), Nottingham (93 journeys) and Reading (81 journeys).

It compares to an England average for 2021/22 of 50 journeys per head. It is “surely no coincidence” that two of the three are areas with municipally owned bus companies (Nottingham and Reading). While the Government banned new ones in 2017, it couldn’t scrap the ones which already existed – and which are working extremely well.

Meanwhile, it took Manchester six years to even set up a ‘franchised’ system of operating buses, copying the hugely successfully London model which was spared from privatisation in the 1980s. So onerous were the consultation burdens and the blockers private firms were able to put up – from legal challenges to insane levels of bureaucracy – that it took enormous political will to get it over the line.

The situation is even harder for areas that aren’t mayoral combined authorities – i.e. the majority of council areas in England.

As the report finds, “before areas that are non-[combined authorities like Manchester] can even begin the franchising assessment process, they must first enter discussions with government to request the necessary powers (which require secondary legislation)”.

“They then need the consent of the Secretary of State to use those powers and begin to develop their assessment of the proposed franchising scheme. This process is untested, and the additional time and resource needed for these preliminary steps is unknown and therefore risky for first movers.”

In other words, even in Labour councils, it hasn’t been attempted as the hurdles are too high.

London Labour council leader Darren Rodwell, transport spokesperson for the LGA, notes: “Councils should be in the driving seat to deliver good, affordable and reliable bus services in their areas not private bus operators, but are restricted from taking greater control over them.

“By providing councils with new franchising powers they would be able to keep fares down, increase the number of local bus routes and make buses more attractive for everyone to use.”

Buses are the most popular form of public transport in the UK. But local areas with the most knowledge of what their communities need are left at the whim of (often foreign, state owned) bus operators, picking up the pieces where they can’t be bothered to run routes. That’s a big part of why you wait an hour for a bus outside of London, and none come along at once. 

Until the Government recognises that, the dribbles of cash from Westminster will do nothing to fix the fragmented mess that is bus services outside England’s two biggest cities. 

Sadly, this dying regime seems more intent on removing powers from councils over transport – vowing to stop democratically elected authorities implementing 20 mph zones and traffic-reduction policies that can save lives. 

Conservative councils believe the culture road wars are idiotic, from Cornwall to Somerset and East Sussex. But they can’t stop a national party determined to make short-term decisions for a darker, more dangerous future. 

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