Labour has pledged to give councils powers to launch their own new bus services and also bring in franchising. The party says that if it wins the next General Election it will help local authorities “take back control” of bus services.
Both its shadow transport secretary and her deputy have given speeches outlining Labour’s policy – one of the first areas in transport it has set out in any detail.
“Costly and time consuming hurdles” to franchising would be removed. Smaller local transport authorities will be offered expert advice and support, with the bus directorate in the DfT delivering support to local transport authorities, says Labour.
It is also pledged to scrap the ban on municipal bus ownership, introduced by the Conservatives in 2017. “This would allow communities to establish their own municipal bus network, building on the success of areas like award-winning Nottingham which have amongst the highest satisfaction ratings and passenger numbers per head in the country.”
Decades of failed deregulation have left communities with little say over the essential services they rely on, says Labour.
It says that in 2022 the total number of miles driven by buses fell by 175 million compared with 2016, “with over 1,000 services lost in the last year alone”.
“Meanwhile, fares surged by 51%, almost twice as fast as wages since 2010 putting huge pressure on passengers.”
Deregulation gave operators “enormous power to raise fares and slash routes, and in many cases cut communities off altogether”, Labour claims.
“As a result, bus usage has almost halved outside of London, and many towns and rural areas are forced to rely on a shockingly bad, unaffordable service.”
Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh says that Britain is one of the only countries in the developed world where bus operators have the power to set routes and fares, with no say for local communities.
Labour would hand power and control to local communities through the Take Back Control Act in the first King’s Speech of a Labour government, says Haigh. “The millions that depend on our buses are being failed,” she said. “Labour will fix our broken bus system – and we’ll do it by giving power and control of bus services to the communities who depend on them.”
Her points were echoed by shadow transport minister Simon Lightwood in his keynote address to the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) Annual Conference.
All local areas would be given the opportunity to pursue franchising under a Labour government, which would also reverse the ban on forming new municipal companies, said Lightwood.
“We’ll hand power and control to the communities that rely on bus services,” he told delegates. “We will offer all local areas the chance to franchise bus services
– they will have the power to plan the network, set the routes and the fare structure. We believe in giving communities more say over the services they depend on, and this will help all of us who care about the long-term viability of the bus industry succeed.”
Lightwood said the Government had “overpromised, underfunded and underdelivered” on bus, noting the loss of 7,000 bus routes in England.
The Government’s short-term funding settlements has led to a lack of certainty, said Lightwood.
Despite this, Lightwood is upbeat about the sector’s prospects, stating he is “encouraged by the work going on between operators and local government”.
He pointed to the integrated ticketing, decarbonisation strategies and the work by the West Yorkshire Bus Alliance to recruit more drivers to the workforce.
“Partnerships like this between councils, combined authorities and bus operators are an important first step with this kind of future, and the future that we want to see in our sector,” he said. “Fewer barriers, more cooperation, and greater accountability.”
He praised the efforts of Greater Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham’s to introduce franchising across the city region. He also noted how devolved powers and funding has brought down fares in many areas of the country.
Lightwood said a Labour government would turbo-charge the roll-out of EV buses by investing £2bn to part-finance eight Gigafactories by 2040.
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