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Whatever Happened To Sorting Out Bus Regulation?

Manchester's "Bee Network" buses (Alamy)

6 min read

“A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure,” Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have once said.

Whether she ever actually denounced bus travel for adults is not entirely clear – if she did she got it from a socialite by the unlikely name of Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, who in turn had nicked it from a poet – but she certainly governed on the principle that buses were not the business of the state. In 1980, her government deregulated long-distance buses. In 1986, it did the same for local ones, leaving councils with no role in setting fares, routes or frequencies – no public transport function – at all.

The one area excluded from all this was the capital, whose transport authorities retain control of the regulation, if not operation, of its bus services to this day. The results of this accidental controlled experiment – patronage on London’s more subsidised bus services has boomed, even as it’s declined everywhere else – suggests that, just maybe, deregulation had been a bad idea.

So three decades after the Thatcher government introduced it, Theresa May’s administration moved to roll back deregulation. The Bus Services Act 2017 gave regions with metro mayors the power to run their buses on a London-style model: dictating routes, fares, frequencies and standards, but leaving the actual operation to private companies. This would allow cities to provide their residents with access to an affordable and green alternative to cars once again; to link people to jobs and services; to use the revenues from the most popular routes to cross-subsidise quieter but socially useful ones – in other words, to generally get back into the public transport business once again, as every council once was.

And yet, nearly six years after the Act was passed – nearly as long as it took the Thatcher government to deregulate the sector – not one area has actually taken back control of their buses. The closest is Greater Manchester, whose leaders have been agitating for bus franchising since before the city’s Mayor Andy Burnham was one of them, and which signed a deal to franchise certain buses as part of its “Bee Network” last December; the contracts come into operation this September. 

Everywhere else, at the moment, still seems to be waiting to see how that goes before deciding whether to take the leap.

This time-lag is in some ways surprising, if only because urban policy wonks have been arguing that buses are the key to unlocking cities’ potential for some time. Simon Jeffrey, a transport policy advisor at the Local Government Association, for example, describes the bus as “one of the most powerful tools” cities have. “Obviously for ensuring that people can get to the shops and work and school, but also for all the core elements of urban policy, ensuring that streets move freely, the city centre has stuff in it, and so on,” he said. 

The process of creating your bus network is as useful to a city as the resulting network itself, he argues: “If you don’t run it, you don’t care.”

There are, however, good reasons why councils have been slow to take up their new powers. Between austerity, Brexit and covid, local government has had rather a lot of other things on its mind. What’s more, not all councils even have the option: the 2017 act limits the opportunity to combined authorities headed by metro mayors, which accounts for most of England’s bigger urban areas (as well as, strangely, Cambridgeshire), but not many of the shire counties. Think tanks like the Centre for Cities have called on the government to roll out the powers more broadly; so far, though, this hasn’t happened.

Then there’s the convoluted process mandated by the act itself. To take back control of its buses, a combined authority (CA) must first write a document setting out what it wants them to look like, without prejudging whether or not franchise is the model. (This explains some of the weirdly luke-warm comments on the matter Burnham has made.) Then the bus companies get a right of reply, an opportunity to show that they can provide the same benefits under the existing model, or under less radical changes like “enhanced partnerships”, in which councils get more power over timetables and ticketing but not full control. CAs then need to show that they can’t provide those benefits, often with reference to things operators struggle with like integrated ticketing.

At every stage private companies might challenge the authorities’ plans in court, and even if they win, they still ultimately need sign-off from the transport secretary. The result, says Tom Forth of The Data City, who’s been following the policy closely, is “a huge process of continually producing big documents and having court cases”.

All this costs millions, even before you get to the cost of actually running the buses. And national government – which doesn’t seem especially concerned about any of this – has not allocated any funding. Steve Hayes, the head of network transformation at Transport for the West Midlands, has likened it to “getting a new computer games console for Christmas and then not having any money to buy any games”. Local Government Association’s Jeffrey describes the resulting situation as “a legal power to do something which is very expensive, under an untested piece of legislation with convoluted terms which might mean you spend years in court”. As popular as the idea of locally-controlled bus services is in the abstract, it’s not clear it would remain so after several years of legal battles and all the resulting costs.

All that said, there are still reasons to think bus franchising could be pretty transformative. The current arrangement in which some city regions are split between several local monopolies makes it hard to get across cities on a single ticket, Forth notes: that in turn slows things up because drivers have to sell, check and print tickets. The current arrangements also means that bus operators try to steal passengers from alternatives like trains and trams, rather than designing networks to integrate with them.

The likely next government has said it will go farther than the 2017 act ever did: earlier this year Labour promised a “presumption in favour of franchising” for every local transport authority, metro mayor or not. That should, if done well, simplify some of those legal hurdles.

Announcing the proposals, the party cited another Conservative Prime Minister’s comment on buses – Boris Johnson’s unkept promise, launching his own National Bus Strategy for England in 2021, that services would “run so often you wouldn’t need a timetable”. Doing that though, would surely require an injection of cash as well as powers: the success of London’s bus network, after all, was built not just on franchising, but on subsidy. It’s one thing to say you support a policy. It’s quite another to pay for it.


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