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The Buses Bill – Don’t forget Rural England too!

(Update provided by Liam Tatton-Bennett on behalf of the ACRE network)

The Buses Bill, announced by the Government in May 2015 and currently timetabled for a winter first reading, is intended to complement the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill which will give new executive powers to cities with the creation of new directly elected Mayors. Under the Buses Bill the Mayors will then have the potential to implement ‘London style’ franchising over local buses.

The implementation of the Bill has the potential to make major changes to the regulation of bus services in England to facilitate more coherent, centralised and locally controlled bus networks within the scope of the 1985 Transport Act which deregulated buses across the country. The Bill is designed to try to halt the general decline in bus service provision and stem the tide of higher bus fares both of which are being experienced across the country. According to Campaign for Better Transport, there has been a 52% cut in bus funding since 2010 in Suffolk.

Representatives from over 20 different charities and Non Governmental Organsiations (NGO) were represented at a roundtable meeting hosted on 17 September by Campaign for Better Transport to discuss the Buses Bill in partnership with the Department for Transport. Our colleague Liam Tatton-Bennett at Community First, Wiltshire represented the Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) network. Also represented at the meeting were Age UK, the Community Transport Association, the National Pensioners Convention, The Ramblers, and the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

At the meeting the scope of the Bill was set out as follows:

  • To provide franchising powers for local authorities
  • To strengthen regulation around the partnerships that local authorities can create with bus operators
  • Be predominantly urban focused – However, there was strong representation made at the roundtable meeting about the potential for the Bill to also benefit rural areas (see below)
  • Examine how ‘open data’ can be used to support the delivery of more coherent, integrated bus networks e.g. shared real time bus information data
  • Include scope for the mechanisms by which Bus Service Operator’s Grant (BSOG) is paid to bus operators (including Community Transport operators) to be further reviewed and/or devolved to Local Authorities.

With regard to representations made by those organisations at the meeting the following views were put forward:

  • Any devolution of bus regulation powers to local authorities has to come with money to implement the powers. The view was that if the Buses Bill gives local authorities more powers over bus services, but comes with further cuts to bus funding (e.g. cuts to BSOG and local authority revenue funding), it will not halt the decline in bus use that has been apparent for some time
  • While the 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
  • If the role of the Traffic Commissioner is devolved to local authorities then there should be a statutory duty on Local Authorities to consult with communities (e.g. bus user / consumer groups etc.) before any bus services are reviewed / implemented
  • Bus franchises should only be established on a voluntary (not mandatory) basis based on local market conditions
  • Franchising powers should be available to all Local Authorities where devolution deals have been made under the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill
  • Smaller bus operators including Community Transport groups not to be ‘locked out’ of any potential new franchise/partnership frameworks established as part of the new Bill
  • Cross subsidy of economically viable services to non-economically viable ones should be made an intrinsic part of any new franchise/partnership frameworks being proposed by the Bill
  • Obligation for operators to cooperate across geographical boundaries within any new franchise/partnership frameworks established as part of the new Bill (similar principles are already in place in respect of case in land use planning introduced via the Localism Act.)

We will keep you posted on any further developments on the Buses Bill as and when they arise.

Sarah Mortimer
Senior Development Officer – Communities & Rural Issues
sarah.mortimer@communityactionsuffolk.org.uk
01473 345318