Supporting local bus services

Buses are by far West Yorkshire’s most-used form of public transport, with over 180m journeys made on them every year. They play a vital role in connecting people to jobs, training and opportunities and underpinning the local economy, growth and job creation.

Just last week, research carried out Greener Journeys, by KPMG and the University of Leeds’ Institute for Transport Studies showed that improving local bus services boosts employment and income and helps to reduce social deprivation. The report – The Value of the Bus to Society – found that across England a 10 per cent improvement in local bus services is linked to a 3.6 per cent reduction in social deprivation, taking into account employment, income, life expectancy and skills.

Despite the economic and social importance of our local bus services, the tools available to the combined authority to improve them are currently weak. They do not provide influence over factors important to our bus users including fares, routes, timetables and punctuality. As a result, we have seen fares rising well above inflation, services cut and a decline in bus use.

The bus services bill proposes to make a range of measures and powers available to local transport authorities that will enable them to be more effective in influencing how local bus services are organised and run. It has cross-party support in West Yorkshire.

The combined authority sees the bill as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a strong legal framework for the operation of local bus services to be established but we are concerned that there are aspects of the detailed provisions that could limit its impact. We want to see those restrictions removed.

One key area of concern is the prevention of transport authorities from establishing bus companies should we choose to do so.

Across the United Kingdom, there are good examples of local authority-owned bus companies providing very effective services. If it is the government’s intention that decisions about bus services should be made at a local level, it simply does not make sense to restrict the options available to transport authorities, particularly in the light of this positive track record in other parts of the country.

There could be situations in the future where it could be seen as necessary or desirable to start one, perhaps as an ‘operator of last resort’ where no other company is able to serve an area, or to facilitate a community transport service.

We also want to see equal access to franchising powers for all combined authorities.

Currently the bill would enable mayoral combined authorities to adopt powers to franchise the local bus network in a similar manner to the arrangement in London. Some clarity on the process for non-mayoral combined authorities has emerged from the report stage, but other authorities would still be left needing to apply to the secretary of state for similar franchising powers.

As a result of these concerns, I have written to the county’s members of parliament urging them to back a number of amendments that would overcome those limitations.

West Yorkshire combined authority is not currently considering forming a bus company and is committed to building on what we have already achieved working with local bus operators to improve services. Further initiatives to make bus travel more attractive to local people by addressing issues such as punctuality, stability of services and customer service are already underway.

However, given the decline in bus usage since deregulation, given the importance of improving air quality and given the role transport can play in tackling social deprivation and social isolation, it is vital we do not miss this opportunity to have every tool available to ensure those services meet West Yorkshire’s needs and expectations. Interestingly, many operators, such as Abellio, Keolis, RATP Dev, HCT Group, Tower Transit and The Green Bus, agree with us.

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Keith Wakefield is chair of the transport committee for the West Yorkshire combined authority. He tweets at @CllrKWakefield

You can track the progress of the bus services bill here

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