Maggie Jones on the government’s plans for bus service provision, as the current bill concludes its Lords Committee
Yesterday, Peers completed the final day of Committee considering the Bus Services Bill – legislation that represents a welcome, if long delayed, volte face for a government previously wedded to a market driven provision of public services.
Ministers have finally accepted that deregulation of bus services in the 1980’s has been a failure for passengers, transport planners and localities alike. The facts speak for themselves. In Greater London, the only place currently allowed to operate a franchise model overseen by the elected authority, passenger numbers have doubled since 1986, bus mileage has increased by 74% and fare increases have been lower than in other city-regions. Conversely, outside of the Capital where a free market exists, bus patronage has declined, fares have shot up faster than wages, and routes and services have been axed.
Labour has welcomed the Bill’s underlying intention to bring back some order to bus service provision, reverse the decline in passenger journeys taken, and improve quality and reliability. Sadly however, it does not go far enough in empowering local authorities to make real decisions about the shape of services. We have also been keen to build in stronger minimum standards, improved passenger and employee consultation, and greener buses.
Crucially, we have moved amendments to enable all councils to adopt a franchise model of delivery if they feel it’s in the best interests of local communities. At present, the Bill restricts this right to combined authorities with an elected mayor. There is no logic to this restriction, which is clearly a political move designed to offer a carrot to councils to adopt the mayoral system, particularly in the ‘Northern Powerhouse’. With George Osborne off the scene and Chris Grayling now in place as Transport Secretary, I hope this unjustifiable restriction will be removed and ministers will be persuaded to devolve such decisions. Interestingly, we have received cross party support for our related amendment, including from Conservative Peers.
Labour has also been active in opposing the section of the Bill which prevents local authorities awarding a bus contract to a municipal operator. Another deliberately political move which flies in the face of the evidence. Currently, municipally owned bus services are some of the most successful in the country, with good quality provision and high levels of passenger satisfaction. Nottingham City Transport for example, has been UK bus operator of the year three times. Again, we believe that councils are best placed to make the decision about the delivery model best suited to them.
Some of our other amendments have received a more sympathetic response from the government, with offers of ministerial meetings to discuss improved disability access to buses and compulsory staff training on disability awareness. But following last month’s referendum vote, there is now uncertainty about how EU regulation will apply to the UK – and one critical piece of EU legislation due to come into effect in 2018 requires bus drivers and terminal staff to complete disability awareness training. Clarity is lacking on whether this will still come into effect, and its probable impact.
We also expect further discussion before Report stage on how to incorporate minimum environmental specifications on all future buses; better reporting on traffic congestion, air quality and safety standards; guaranteed consultation with trade unions and passenger groups when changes are proposed; and how to embed a responsibility for councils to take into account the wider social value of their transport services.
With the Bill not back before the House until the autumn, there is plenty of time for ministers to take on board many of our amendments beforehand. We stand ready however, to win our arguments on the floor of the Lords and, if necessary, push these issues to a vote.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Environment Minister in the House of Lords
Published 21st July 2016