Bus Services Bill becomes Bus Services Act as Royal Assent is granted in the final sitting days of Parliament before the snap general election
The Bus Services Bill has gained Royal Assent, becoming the Bus Services Act and passing into law.
The Act was one of 22 passed on April 27, as the Government worked to conclude proceedings on a number of new laws in the wake of the call for a snap general election.
A final debate on the subject took place on April 25 in the House of Lords – the last day Parliament will sit before the election.
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, explained the rationale behind which amendments had been maintained, changed or rejected, with other Lords given the opportunity to respond.
Part 6 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 was judged to already provide powers to enforce moving traffic offences, and Local Authorities (LA) already had the ability to address issues of congestion through new infrastructure measures or technological solutions.
“Additionally, through franchising and partnership schemes, LAs and operators can further address congestion in a more targeted way,” Lord Ahmad said.
Concern was expressed that moving traffic offences could be abused to generate revenue. “Instead, we shall be encouraging LAs and operators to use the Act to develop local solutions to congestion pinch points,” Lord Ahmad stated.
Baroness Randerson (Lib Dem) commented: “The fear that LAs would use powers to make money is a flimsy excuse for rejecting the idea, because it would be so easy for the Government to produce an amendment that restricted LAs’ ability to do that.”
Lord Snape (Labour) said: “The latest independent survey of bus passengers indicates that around 80% of them are satisfied with existing bus services. That does not reflect the sort of discontent with bus service standards that was mentioned during the passage of the Bill.
“But there was virtual unanimity among those passengers about the problems of congestion. If the Government is not prepared to tackle congestion itself or to give LAs the proper powers to tackle it, those fears widely expressed by passengers are unlikely to be allayed.”
Lord Ahmad responded: “I disagree. The new types of partnership and franchising powers give LAs new ways to work with operators to improve journeys for passengers.”
Lord Ahmad said: “The Bill needs to strike a balance between giving LAs the right tools for the job and being overly prescriptive.
“There is a danger that requiring all new buses within a partnership or franchising scheme coming into service after April 1, 2019 to be low emission would mean that bus schemes could become prohibitively expensive.”
Baroness Randerson (Lib Dem) said: “I am disappointed that the Government has taken the view that there does not need to be a stronger steer on the issue of emissions from bus services.”
Lord Whitty (Labour) added: “If the Government was concerned about the timescale and the economics, they could have amended the timescale and put in a few qualifications. Instead, they have deleted the requirements that new vehicles should meet new low emissions standards. This is a poor signal.
“Buses are one of the main diesel-based pollutant vehicles. There was an opportunity to replace those buses when a new vehicle is brought on with one with high-quality emissions standards. We could have varied dates and qualifications, but nevertheless that needed to be in the Bill.”
Lord Ahmad responded: “This is not a low priority given that quite specific reference is made to it. Indeed, LAs can specify this element in any proposals they make when procuring bus services.”
Stakeholders stressed the importance of two existing datasets that are currently maintained by LAs which accurately and uniquely describe and locate all bus stops in a common format. They are currently maintained by LAs on a voluntary basis.
Amendments were made to the Bill to ensure that regulations could be made requiring Local Transport Authorities (LTAs) to provide information other than in the context of franchising, and information about stopping places could be provided by LTAs or operators.
After debate about the importance of consultation in relation to bus partnership and franchising schemes, the Government accepted Transport Focus and the national park authorities as statutory consultees. An amendment was also made to require LAs to consult employee representatives about a proposed franchising scheme, a measure they may choose to take for partnership schemes too.
Lord Whitty (Labour) said: “I know that the unions intend to be constructive and by and large welcome the objectives of the Bill, but from a long list of those who are required to be consulted about these changes, the people who are omitted are the ones who actually drive and operate the buses.”
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour) added: “The bus industry is heavily unionised, which has generally been of benefit to it. The unions work well with the various bus companies and seek to provide a public service. I do not see any benefit in what the Government has done.”
Lord Ahmad responded: “I challenge the assumption that employee representatives are not being consulted. On the contrary, they will be. Trade unions fall within the scope of what an employee representative body is.”
The auditor of a franchise assessment is now required to be independent of the franchising authority.
Earl Attlee (Conservative) commented: “I was uncomfortable with the idea that the appointment of the auditor should have rested with the franchising authority. This would have allowed it to be judge and jury of its own proposals.
“Auditing a franchise assessment is perhaps one of the most critical steps on the road to franchising. If the auditor says that the franchise stacks up and meets all the other, quite onerous requirements, there is little more to be said.
“For that reason, the person carrying out the audit should have no ties with the franchising authority.”
On the subject of municipal operators, Lord Ahmad said: “We all agree that there are some very good municipal operators. Their ability to operate will not be affected by this provision.
“However, very few remain, with many having been sold to some of our more successful private companies. I don’t think this amendment is likely to impact on the plans of many LAs.
“This amendment ensures that we get the balance right between LA influence and private sector delivery.
“Our view remains that passengers will see most benefit where the commissioning and provision of bus services are kept separate. We do not think that LAs should set up new operators.”
Lord Whitty (Labour) said: “That is a restriction on LA strategic decision-making.”
Baroness Randerson added: “I still do not understand how it is so important to the Government to remove this power.
“I am also confused as to why good municipals are not a template for possible future development. LA finances are so poor that they are not going to be using this power in the near future. It is simply not on the cards.
“This power could have been very useful, particularly in rural areas where there is no bus service. An LA might wish to rent some buses and set up company in the short term to fill that gap.”
Lord Kennedy of Southwark echoed: “There never was going to be a stampede of LAs charging off to create municipal operators. I never understood why the Government was so obsessed with this particular clause in what generally was, and is, a very good Bill.”
The limitation on franchising has been maintained in the Act, rejecting a Lords amendment that all LAs should have automatic access to these powers.
Lord Ahmad explained: “Moving to franchising is a serious step and should not be undertaken lightly.
“In the Commons, there was significant concern that the ability of any LA to move to franchising at any time would lead to operators across England thinking twice about their investment decisions. It was agreed that automatic access to franchising powers should be available only to mayoral combined authorities.
“We want to ensure franchising powers can be made available to LAs which have the ability, powers and the financial capacity to make a success of franchising.
“Let me be clear: the Secretary of State will not take the final decision. That will be a local decision. The Bill sets out clearly the process that any LA needs to follow before the mayor or a named individual can take the decision to move to franchising. Within this assessment, the LA would need to consider value for money and the affordability of the proposal.”
Lord Snape (Labour) commented: “My scepticism about franchising without proper funding is on the record. I say in passing – contradicting myself – that only if the rest of the country received the sort of money that London receives for its franchising, it might be worthwhile.”
Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Labour) said: “There is an obsession in Government with mayors and it needs to be dealt with. You may be a combined authority, but unless you have a mayor, you cannot have these franchising powers.”
Lord Ahmad responded: “This is not an obsession with mayors or mayoral authorities. The route to franchising is open to all authorities which can make a justifiable business case.”
CPT Chief Executive, Simon Posner, said: “Passengers and taxpayers outside London are well served by the commercial market. It has stemmed the decline in patronage and given operators the flexibility to respond to passenger needs and aspirations.
“The Bus Services Act offers exciting opportunities for operators and LAs to take decisive steps that make buses the obvious way to get around.
“The industry remains concerned about the powers for LAs in certain circumstances to introduce franchising, but we welcome the robust and transparent assessment process specified by the Act.”
Lianna Etkind, Public Transport Campaigner for Campaign for Better Transport, said: “The Act is a great opportunity for LAs and new mayors to plan and improve their bus services, and grow passenger numbers.
“It will bring real benefit to both cities and more rural areas, enabling better integrated transport with simple, smart ticketing; while giving councils new powers to boost bus access and air quality.”
Bill Freeman, CEO of the Community Transport Association (CTA), added: ‘The CTA wants to see more communities served by better local passenger transport networks, with accessibility and inclusion at their heart.
“This Act provides a new framework to enable this, but on its own cannot create the changes we want to see. This requires local leaders to build a coalition of support with the people and communities they serve to shape and create the local passenger transport network they want.”