Bus Strategy in focus

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Local authorities must decide quickly whether to adopt Enhanced Partnerships or go down the franchising route. JONATHAN WELCH

Jonathan Welch reports on the latest meeting of the Transport Committee, which looked at the implementation of the National Bus Strategy

On Wednesday 21 April Huw Merriman MP chaired a meeting of the Transport Committee to discuss the National Bus Strategy. Witnesses included Graham Vidler, CPT Chief Executive; John Carr, Board Member, Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers; and Mark Kemp, Director of Environment and Infrastructure, Hertfordshire County Council.

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Huw opened by asking what the Government needs to do to get the strategy right and ensure that it is a success when put into action. John Carr responded that it will need more resources than currently available, and that it needs to recognise that outside major conurbations there probably are not going to be the opportunities for the level of bus priority that the strategy expects and thus the Government will need to look at alternative ways of speeding up buses. We must also move away from ‘we must keep traffic as a whole moving’ and get into the mindset of maximising the number of people who can travel sustainably, he said.

Mark Kemp said that in terms of financial security and understanding, the strategy relies on a relationship between the local transport authority and the operators: a deal between them which says that transport authorities will provide infrastructure and in return operators will provide quality, frequency and affordability. ”We need clear visibility of the funding that we will have, not for next year but probably for the next five years,” he said, “to enable us to properly plan what works we can put in.” Clarity of funding and leadership are needed, he added.

Social distancing
Graham Vidler said that it is crucial that the social distancing review does not leave bus and other public transport behind, and that it is important that enhanced partnerships are on the best possible base of network and passenger numbers, which will need sufficient funding.

Greg Smith asked about the practicalities of commissioning bus services alongside local authorities and whether there is a risk that smaller bus operators could be pushed to one side by the bureaucracy. Graham Vidler responded that there are many small local operators providing services, both on a commercial basis and under tender arrangements with local authorities.

Greg Smith went on to ask whether the enhanced partnership model will be right for everywhere, to which the answer was that it is not one size fits all and a very fluid concept. In more urban areas, said Graham Vidler, partnerships might focus more on bus priority, frequency and reliability. In rural areas, it could involve demand responsive transport and support for socially necessary services.

Mark Kemp drew on his experience of starting the first enhanced bus quality partnership in the country. “We need to be realistic; in the more rural areas, it is going to be very difficult to make any kind of public transport service become a pure commercial service. We need to be quite creative about how we do that. We also have one of the early demand responsive transport pilots in Hertfordshire, to try to work out how that goes. If I have a real concern about the whole thing, it is around the SMEs.” Mark also highlighted concerns that decarbonisation would pose problems for smaller operators in terms of procuring expensive electric buses.

Asked why his local authority had not adopted the approach sooner, given that the power has been available since 2017, Mark Kemp said it was a complex issue of negotiation between 10 operators and 10 district councils. He said that for a single unitary area it might be quicker.

Project delivery
Moving to the question of how to deliver local bus service improvement plans and the enhanced partnerships in practice, Graham Morris asked what councils and bus operators need to do between now and the end of October when the bus service improvement plans have to be published. The answer was that there now has to be a deal of negotiation with operators to understand where their priorities are, what their commercial returns are and how the footfall works, so that authorities can identify what the commercial networks are, where the pinch points are and where the gaps are that need to be filled: a significant job, and one which, it was suggested, might be challenging for local authorities who lack the skills needed. After that an action plan has to be developed followed by consultation, which will take a lot of work in a very short period of time, and some authorities are further ahead than others.

John Carr said that it would be enormously helpful to local authorities if they could have the guidance for the revisions to Enhanced Partnerships and for the Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs) as quickly as possible. He also said they needed to establish what is the network is intended to look like, which in some counties would be easy but in others there is no existing network to look at as a logical starting point. He suggested as a rule of thumb that using a mobility service of some kind, whether bus, DRT or a shared car, a person should be able to get to their local GP surgery at least once a week as a minimum.

Available skills
Simon Jupp asked whether local authorities have the skills in-house, or whether they might have to have to rely on external consultants to do most of the work. The Government has pledged £25 million available to build up that capacity, and John Carr said that although some larger authorities may retain them, in general the skills have been lost. “It is probably not terribly useful to the local authorities for me to say this, but a group of bus operators I work with recently did a straw poll among their members, and 50% of them expressed doubts that their local authority would be able to deliver BSIPs against the required timescale. It is a small sample, but I think it is probably a reasonable reflection of the level of difficulty there is.”

Graham Vidler commented that even with the money, the first of which has already been given out, the question is where the people are going to come from, while John Carr added that given that there are big jobs to be done very quickly, and the consultancy bills are not likely to be low, and that he believed the amount of money available will pretty soon run out.

Gavin Newlands drew comparison with Scotland, where the Scottish Government has a £500 million commitment for bus infrastructure and congestion, which in relative terms would equate to around £5 billion. “There is a commitment to £1.2 billion for zero-emission buses. In fact, over the last few months, in relative terms, £500 million has been spent on 272 buses. In relative terms, that is 2,700 buses. They are moving to a majority of zero-emission buses by 2023, whereas the current UK Government ambition is only to move to a tenth of its fleet, or 4,000 buses,” he said.

“That is combined with under-22 free bus travel to get more young folk back on buses. If that scale of ambition and investment was matched by the UK Government for England, what difference would it make?”

Graham Vidler emphasised that it is not just the upfront capital support but an ongoing supplement alongside the bus services grant in Scotland. “There is lots to welcome in what is happening in Scotland. The area of concern for us is around how some of that is playing out on the ground. That £500 million for bus priority is perhaps not being spent quickly enough because there is not the same tradition of working in partnership between bus operators and local authorities in Scotland that there is in England,” he noted.

Ministerial comments

The Enhanced Partnership model will be a fluid concept, to fit differing requirements. JONATHAN WELCH

For the second half of the session, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, Minister for Roads, Buses and Places, and Stephen Fidler OBE, Co-Director for Local Transport joined the meeting. The Chair asked Baroness Vere to set out what is required to be delivered at each stage, and whether she was confident that there will be enough time on the ground to deliver it. Baroness Vere said her department had given a great deal of thought as to how it would happen and how to ensure that local accountability is put into place. The Baroness said that local authorities should be contemplating 30 June, by which date it needs to think about whether it will go down the enhanced partnership or franchising route. By then they need to be able to provide a statutory notice of their intent. The next stage is the bus service improvement plan, by 31 October, and authorities and operators must think clearly about what in the strategy will be needed in the BSIP, she continued. For local authorities that means planning, such as infrastructure requirements, and working with operators to form a plan. It must not be a tick-box exercise, she said. The next deadline is April 2022, by which time enhanced partnerships are expected to be in place or franchising well under way.

The discussion moved to how to get people back on the buses. Baroness Vere highlighted the need to return to normality in a measured and cautious fashion, and said when it is right to encourage people to return, the Government will. In the meantime, the message remains that public transport is safe but there is still the message out to minimise travel, which is not the same as it being unsafe in itself, she said. Asked about ongoing use of face coverings, she added that drivers would not be required to enforce face coverings, but that ventilation was an area which operators could improve on.

Looking at BSIPs and the issue of local authorities being unable to meet the deadline either through insufficient or unstable data, or if the DfT doesn’t believe the proposal is good enough. Baroness Vere accepted the target was ambitious. Nonetheless she said that the uncertainty of covid was not a reason not to plan. Addressing how success or otherwise would be measured, Baroness Vere said that local authorities would be asked to set targets against which it could be measured, as each area will have different needs. Stephen Fidler added that the key is demonstrating that it has thought about the needs of its area or part of it and setting priorities accordingly.

Asked whether it is fair that all local authorities received the same £100,000 regardless of size, Baroness Vere said the £25 million allocated this financial year will be apportioned according to need but he £100,000 was just a start. Responding to the question of whether a local authority which does not enjoy a good relationship with its local bus operator and does not want to work with them could work with a competitor, Baroness Vere said that could happen.

Stephen Fidler said the Government had put incentives on operators through the funding provided to them through the coronavirus support grant, but also potentially in the future BSOG funding, to participate in good faith with plans.

Chris Loder asked what might happen if a private sector operator refused to share data with a local authority. Stephen Fidler explained that one of the reasons that the Government has asked everybody to issue statutory notices on enhanced partnerships and on franchising is that that triggers under secondary legislation a power for authorities to request exactly that kind of data from operators, who are then required to provide it.

On the issue of consultants, Baroness Vere said it will be up to each local authority to consider what it wants to do in-house, and what it might bring in specialist transport consultants to do.

Moving ahead, the question was posed as to why the two options had been chosen, along with the tight timescale. Baroness Vere said that one of the positive things to come from the pandemic is that local authorities and bus operators worked much closely together than before, and that in areas which have seen high levels of bus ridership and increasing passenger numbers have had a good relationship between the operator and the local authority. Specifying why the two methods, Baroness Vere said the Government wanted there to be a statutory framework.

Stephen Fidler mentioned the option of the advanced quality partnerships, but called it effectively a bit of an opt-out for an operator, tied to the use of facilities such as bus stops or bus lanes.
Addressing concerns that the plans would work to benefit the major groups with more resources, Baroness Vere said that in most areas there is not just one single operator and that enhanced partnerships give more power to the passenger, not the operator. On the issue of municipal bus companies, the creation of which which is outlawed under the terms of the 2017 Bus Services Act, Baroness Vere commended Nottingham and Reading’s municipal operators, whilst acknowledging not all had reached that level. The Government will review the legislation, she said.

The meeting continued with discussion around funding and service provision: The full transcript as well as a recording of the session can be found via the Transport Committee’s website at committees.parliament.uk.