Bus services are a vital lifeline for local communities. Buses allow individuals to access employment, education and public services, and ensure they can fully participate in society. However, bus passenger numbers are in long term decline. Concerns have been expressed about the impact of deregulation in many places. These include lack of competition, high fares and cuts in services. Local authorities and operators face a number of challenges if they are to provide the affordable, accessible and comprehensive bus networks which communities need.
The Bus Services Bill goes some way in helping overcome these challenges. We welcome the Government’s approach in giving local authorities the option of implementing new forms of partnership or franchising, based on what is most appropriate to local needs. However, the Bill as introduced into the House of Lords sets out an unnecessarily cumbersome process for local authorities (other than mayoral combined authorities) who wish to franchise.
The prohibition on new municipal bus operators is one of the most controversial elements of the Bill. We recognise that the Government has legitimate concerns about the risk of a conflict of interest where a franchising authority also owns an operator. However, local authorities should have the freedom to set up an operator if that is the best solution for their community. We encourage local authorities to assess the benefits of partnerships and franchising before they consider setting up a municipal bus operator. We call on the Government to support local authorities in managing any real or perceived conflict of interest which may arise.
The Bill provides an opportunity to transform the collection and provision of information about bus services, empowering passengers and allowing local authorities and operators to better understand their networks. We heard powerful testimony as to the impact that audio-visual equipment can have in improving access to buses. The Government’s commitment to bring forward regulations on audio-visual standards for buses is encouraging, but needs to be accompanied with a deadline to do so on the face of the Bill.
We heard evidence of confusing and complicated ticketing in many parts of the country, and are encouraged by the aspects of the Bill which give local authorities the power to introduce simplified systems. However, the Bill should encourage rather than hamper innovation. In this respect, we encourage the Government to work with industry to develop guidance and, where necessary, to play a role in co-ordinating developing technology to minimise unnecessary complexity.
Congestion is a significant threat to the bus industry in many areas. The Department should develop guidance for local authorities on incorporating relevant performance and reporting frameworks into partnership and franchising agreements. We repeat our previous call for the Government to bring into force existing statutory provisions which would allow local authorities to enforce moving traffic offences should they so wish.
We regret that our scrutiny of the Bill has been hampered by the Government’s failure to publish key secondary legislation and guidance. It is unacceptable for governments to place enabling Bills before Parliament without providing a clear indication of how the powers in the Bill will be used in practice. The Government must produce more detailed guidance on the Secretary of State’s franchising consent powers and the open data provisions without delay. In future, the Government should commit to publishing all relevant draft secondary legislation and guidance when a Bill is introduced into Parliament.
22 November 2016