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Give councils more control over how to deliver franchised services, says report

Deniz Huseyin
05 October 2023


Councils should be given new powers to enable them to determine how best to deliver local bus services, says a new report from the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Urban Transport Group. This would end the “spiral of decline” of services by protecting vital bus routes and reinvesting in local networks, they said.

The report calls for a review of current legislation to allow all cities, towns and rural areas in England to have the same rights to introduce bus franchising as those enjoyed by Mayoral Combined Authorities.

This would give local transport authorities (LTAs) power over the fares charged and standards that should be met. It would also give them more control over the frequency of bus services provided and where and when they run, and the ability for buses to be part of joined up transport networks to meet the needs of local communities, says the report, A Smoother Ride.

It recommends lifting the ban in the Bus Services Act 2017 that prevents councils from establishing their own bus companies. It highlights that in areas with municipally owned bus companies, bus journeys per head of population are well above the English average.

Franchising provides a means to ensure that bus services and fares are fully integrated, as set out in the National Bus Strategy (albeit special arrangements may be needed for services that cross the boundaries of the area), says the LGA and Urban Transport Group.

“Franchising allows locally accountable LTAs to take a strategic approach to planning the bus network, rather than patching and mending it wherever the commercial network falls down,” the report states.

“It offers much needed certainty to LTAs on what they will purchase, as opposed to the uncertainty under deregulation where bus operators may decide to deregister any bus service no longer considered profitable and LTAs face a decision on whether they can step in and fund that service.”

Networks can be planned as a whole to “help ensure that bus services support wider goals for an area and integrate with other transport provision, based on the needs of local communities and the local economy”. As public bodies, any surpluses generated can be reinvested in the network in support of those wider goals. The report also calls for the Government to urgently review Enhanced Partnerships between bus operators and councils to see how they can be improved to meet the ambitions set out in the Government’s National Bus Strategy, including making services more frequent, reliable and easier to understand.

The franchising process needs to be simplified, it says. “The length, complexity and cost of the franchising process has implications for the success of EPs.”

The LGA and the Urban Transport Group are calling for greater, long-term investment in local bus services. Every £1 invested in bus services brings an economic return of £4.50, they estimate. This means “taxpayers, the Government and communities would benefit through an accompanying reform of existing bus subsidies”.

The report was published last month just as Greater Manchester became the first city region outside London to run franchised bus services, nearly 40 years since deregulation.

Jason Prince, director of the Urban Transport Group, said: “The Bus Services Act 2017 was, at the time, a pioneering piece of legislation which was designed to give local areas greater control over their bus services by providing powers to either franchise them in certain urban areas or develop Enhanced Partnerships.

“However, as Greater Manchester’s experience of franchising has shown, the process has been unduly long and onerous. Alongside this, the limitations of the Enhanced Partnership model, have meant that the Act has failed to truly deliver on its potential.

“If we really want to fulfill the ambitions of the National Bus Strategy - to truly transform bus services, it’s time to update the legislation, and this reportprovides recommendations for how to do so.”

Cllr Darren Rodwell, transport spokesperson for the LGA, said: “Councils should be in the driving seat to deliver good, affordable and reliable bus services in their areas not private bus operators, but are restricted from taking greater control over them.

“By providing councils with new franchising powers they would be able to keep fares down, increase the number of local bus routes and make buses more attractive for everyone to use.

“We know that buses are a lifeline to so many people and councils want the powers and funding to ensure there are good services in every corner of the country, from the biggest city to the smallest village.”

A SMOOTHER RIDE: Reviewing the Bus Services Act 2017 to empower local areas


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