Key features will include requirement for open data and local authorities no longer being required to fund bus priority in partnership agreements
Parliamentary under Secretary of State for Transport, Andrew Jones, has revealed some details of the upcoming Buses Bill at the UK Bus Summit 2016.
Andrew had previously said at the CPT annual dinner that he would reveal more about the bill at the UK Bus Summit, and during his speech he worked to dispel some of the fears and misconceptions surrounding the bill.
He began: “I want to set out clearly, and in more detail than the government has done before, why we are introducing the bill, what the bill will do, and what we expect to change as a result.”
Offering some context, he continued: “In preparing this bill, we have one clear aim, which is to increase bus passenger numbers.
“I’m a huge, huge supporter of buses. They get people to the shops and to work, boosting our economy.
“Buses enable people to visit friends and family, providing great social benefits, and can reduce congestion and improve air quality in our communities too.
“So it is a matter of concern for me that passenger numbers have been in general decline over recent years. It explains the overriding aim of this bill; to get more people using buses.”
Andrew was keen to first explain what the bill would not do.
“This bill will not impose any particular arrangement on local authorities or on bus operators,” he stated.
“Neither will the bill give local authorities new powers to take bus operators’ assets, such as vehicles or land.
“Oversight of anti-competitive behaviour will be left to the Competition and Markets Authority, which is exactly where it is at the moment. Nor does the bill impose wholesale re-regulation.
“Instead, the Buses Bill is an enabling bill. It gives local authorities new choices about how they can improve bus services in the interests of their residents. I believe that is also in the long-term interests of the bus industry too.”
Andrew continued to explain why the bill was being introduced: “The government is plainly on the side of free enterprise, we are in favour of cutting red tape and giving the private sector the space it needs to grow.
“There is much about today’s de-regulated bus market that works well. The latest Transport Focus survey shows that nearly nine out of 10 customers are satisfied with their bus services. I look at my own area, and I see examples of fantastic practice, with Transdev launching new a state-of-the-art buses on route 36.
“At the same time, a challenger operator — Connexions buses — is pioneering new routes and bringing the benefits of the bus to new people.
“Across the country, commercial operators are introducing smart cards, installing WiFi, co-ordinating timetables, and making great strides in improving accessibility. This is an area of significant personal interest for me and I’m therefore delighted that we have 89% of buses complying with accessibility standards, and we are on track to reach virtually 100%.
“All this progress is down to operators taking decisions in the interests of their passengers. It shows that the de-regulation of the industry has been a success.
“But it would be wrong to pretend that there’s no room for improvement. We only have to look to the streets outside this building to see how, in some circumstances, things can be done differently.
“Just as in London, passengers right across the country want some kind of Oyster-style smart-ticketing service, better access to information about timetables, better information on fares before they travel and real-time data about when the bus is going to arrive at their stop.
“There are many other areas for improvement, too. To make sure that bus routes reflect and support local economic development, such as new housing, and new business parks.
“As things stand, areas that want these improvements have a choice. They can enter into voluntary partnerships with bus operators, they can agree quality partnerships, which have the backing of law, or they can propose quality contracts, under which local authorities take on responsibility for services. But each of these choices has drawbacks.
“Voluntary arrangements can sometimes only be as good as the personal relationships between those involved.
“Statutory partnerships force local authorities, by law, to spend money on new infrastructure, even when everyone agrees it isn’t necessary.
“The Quality Contract Scheme process — introduced in 2000 — has proved more time consuming, costly and challenging than anybody could have imagined.
“We believe there’s room for some additional choices. Choices that keep the best features of a de-regulated market, but that give local areas greater say over bus services.”
The first feature which Andrew confirmed for the buses bill was open data.
“It is in everyone’s interests for people to know as much as possible about the bus services in their area,” Andrew continued.
“Our proposal is that all operators will be required to make data about routes, fares and times open and accessible.
“It will allow app makers to develop products that passengers can use to plan their journeys, and give people the confidence to leave the car at home and take the bus instead.”
The second confirmed feature of the bill was new arrangements for local authority and bus operator partnerships.
“We will remove the requirement that a quality partnership scheme must always involve new infrastructure,” Andrew said.
“We will introduce new, enhanced, partnerships that allow local authorities and bus operators to agree their own standards for all services in their area — perhaps focusing on frequency and reliability along a particular route or transport corridor, or setting emissions standards to improve local air quality, or introducing common branding, marketing and ticketing rules over a wider geographical area.
“In this way, the bill will build on the strengths of existing partnership arrangements while addressing their weaknesses, including the weakness in the current partnership arrangement that allows a small minority of operators to block improvements that have been agreed by the majority.
“The new partnership approach won’t be right for every area. In many cases it may be better to leave things just as they are. For those cases, our message will be quite simple – if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. The status quo is acceptable too.
“Sometimes there will be a case for more radical change. For example, some of the things that Londoners have come to expect can be difficult to deliver in a fully de-regulated market, such as a single fare structure across different operators and transport modes.”
Lastly, Andrew confirmed that the bill would honour devolution deal commitments.
“I want to keep the good parts of the Quality Contract Scheme process, which at least forces people to think things through properly, but I want to lose the parts which don’t work, such as the excessive cost, the bureaucracy and the second-guessing.
“The decision to take up those powers will for local authorities to make.
“Local authorities will need clear arrangements for ensuring the powers are used accountably, the capability to meet the promises to their passengers, and a system that does not disadvantage bus services that cross local authority boundaries.
“Operators will need to play their part too. This will an important decision for local areas to make and it must be made on the basis of solid information, provided in a timely way.
“We certainly do not foresee a one-size-fits-all approach in every area.
“Some local authorities may want to introduce newly-integrated, uniformly branded networks of services just as you see in London. Others will just want to build and improve on what is already there.
“Whatever approach is chosen, it will be a local decision. We want to ensure that bus operators and the wider supply chain have as much notice of change as possible, and that the effects on smaller operators are considered properly.
“In every case, local authorities will need to work closely with the operators in their area to manage the process in the best interest of passengers, particularly during periods of transition which must of course be handled with care.”
Andrew said that he couldn’t yet say when the bill will be introduced into parliament, though he did reveal that he hopes to see the bill gain Royal Assent by early next year.
“We are not at the end of the road yet,” he added.
“Everything in the bill will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and it won’t become law until parliament is satisfied.
“There’s plenty of opportunity to shape the content and I look forward to much debate and discussion in the months ahead.”
For a full report from the UK Bus Summit 2016, see page 28 of this issue.