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End ‘spiral of decline’ of bus services by handing control to councils

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.

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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. 

Although additional government support has been helpful, a 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.

Ahead of the start of party conference season, 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, including:

  • power over the fares that are charged and standards that should be met;
  • the frequency of bus services provided and where and when they run; and
  • the ability for buses to be part of joined up transport networks to meet the needs of local communities

The report, A Smoother Ride, recommends simplifying and improving the franchising process. It is published at the same time as Greater Manchester is set to be the first city region outside London to run franchised bus services this weekend, nearly 40 years since deregulation.

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

The publication also calls for the Government to urgently review Enhanced Partnerships between bus operators and councils to see how they can be improved to meet the ambitions set out in the National Bus Strategy, including making services more frequent, reliable and easier to understand.

The LGA and the Urban Transport Group are calling for greater, long term investment in local bus services. With every £1 invested in bus services estimated to bring an economic return of £4.50, taxpayers, the Government and communities would benefit through an accompanying reform of existing bus subsidies.

Cllr Darren Rodwell, Transport spokesperson for the LGA said:

“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.

“We know that buses are a lifeline to so many people and councils want the powers and funding to ensure there are good services in every corner of the country, from the biggest city to the smallest village.”

Jason Prince, Director of the Urban Transport Group, said:

“The Bus Services Act 2017 was, at the time, a pioneering piece of legislation which was designed to give local areas greater control over their bus services by providing powers to either franchise them in certain urban areas or develop Enhanced Partnerships.

“However, as Greater Manchester’s experience of franchising has shown, the process has been unduly long and onerous. Alongside this, the limitations of the Enhanced Partnership model, have meant that the Act has failed to truly deliver on its potential.

“If we really want to fulfil the ambitions of the National Bus Strategy - to truly transform bus services, it’s time to update the legislation, and this report provides recommendations for how to do so.”

Notes to editors

The full report, A Smoother Ride - Reviewing the Bus Services Act 2017 to empower local areas, is available here.