As part of the Government’s plans for devolution, it has agreed to provide authorities with directly elected mayors the powers necessary to franchise their bus services. These powers are expected to be included in a Buses Bill that is to be introduced in the current parliamentary session. Local Authorities in different areas of the country have come together to bid for devolution powers from the Government. Whilst the main purpose of devolution is cost savings and improved service delivery, the Government has made it known that it supports the directly elected mayor model and the establishment of a local transport authority, similar to Transport for London (TfL), who operates through franchising the provision of bus services and is accountable to the mayor.
The Department for Transport has stated that the main aims of the Bill are to enable local authorities in England outside London to franchise their bus networks where they have agreement from the Government; to preserve the commercial and innovative strengths of private sector operators; and to ensure that there is a good package of measures to improve local bus services in areas that may not wish or feel able to move to franchising.
Bus services outside of London were deregulated in 1986 and since then there have been two systems of bus provision, one for London and one for the rest of the United Kingdom. In London, TfL, who is accountable to the Mayor specifies what bus services are to be provided. TfL decides the routes, timetables and fares. The services themselves are operated under contract by private companies through a competitive tendering process. Outside of London, it is a free market, where any operator, subject to satisfying safety and operating standards, can operate a bus service. Outside of London, a local authority can introduce a Quality Partnership Scheme or a Quality Contract Scheme, which are a form of franchise arrangement between an operator and the local authority. Although available to local authorities since 2008, only one such scheme has been set up. The impetus for the Buses Bill is the Government’s belief that public transport has worked well in London through TfL but has been on the decline throughout the rest of the country.
The Buses Bill gives local authorities with a directly elected Mayor the ability to have a local transport authority that can give a franchise for the provision of bus services to a specific operator. This would mean that within the area covered by the authority, the de-regulated bus market is suspended and bus operators are only able to provided services under contract to the local transport authority. The theory is that franchising brings together the strengths of private operators in efficient service delivery but within a co-ordinated and planned public transport network.
As a consequence, there is the strong likelihood that that consideration will be given to the responsibility for bus registrations being passed from the Office of the Traffic Commissioner to a local transport authority. This function is already devolved in Scotland and it is proposed for it to be devolved in Wales. Furthermore, it may no longer be appropriate for Traffic Commissioners to remain consultees for statutory bus ticketing and bus partnership schemes on the basis that the sanction for non-involvement by operators is through the licensing system. Finally, the requirement for a Traffic Commissioner to be involved in the adjudication of a Quality Contract Scheme may also be removed.
All of this will depend on how many areas in the country chose to opt for devolution and a directly elected mayor and are successful in persuading the Government that their model will be successful.