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Why is the Bus Services Bill needed?
The Welsh Government provides £90million annually to support bus services – including the cost of free bus passes and concessionary fares – with £25million making up the Bus Services Support Grant which subsidises socially-necessary bus routes.
The number of bus journeys has been in a gradual decline, with 29 million fewer journeys over the last ten years. A number of reasons have been given for this including traffic congestion (which makes bus travel less attractive as it takes more time), confusing ticketing schemes and cuts to local authority bus grants as a result of austerity meaning more routes are withdrawn or cut back.
As bus services are often provided on a commercial basis since the deregulation of bus services under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, there’s little incentive for bus companies to run “unprofitable” services.
The Bill is a direct result of a white paper published towards the end of 2018, which suggested re-regulating buses by giving councils more power to plan and deliver bus services.
The Lowdown: 3 Key Proposals in the Bill
1. Council powers regarding bus partnerships will be extended
While councils are already allowed to establish Quality Partnership Schemes (QPS) – which set minimum service standards for bus companies in return for investment and facilities from a council – the Bill will make it a bit easier for a single council or multiple councils to enter into them and set more detailed and specific ground rules.
Each council would need to be satisfied that bus operators can improve service quality, reduce traffic congestion and/or noise and air pollution and increase passenger figures. Councils can also specify minimum service frequencies, timings and requirements for passenger information and integrated ticketing (i.e. switching from bus to train).
2. Councils will be able to franchise bus services
As well as a partnership, councils will be able to enter into a Quality Contract Scheme, which would allow councils to specify what bus services are provided in a particular area and open the contracts to competitive tenders – similarly to how bus services are run in Greater London.
Each franchise proposal would need to be audited independently. Councils/local transport authorities will also have their general powers to request specific information about bus services (i.e. passenger numbers, revenues) extended.
3. Councils will be able to run their own bus services
At the moment two local authorities – Cardiff and Newport – own companies which run local bus services. In the Bill, every council would be able to do so directly, repealing part of the Transport Act 1985 which banned councils from running buses unless they were already operating them before the Act came into force. The aim is to allow councils to step in to run socially-necessary services by themselves if commercial bus companies don’t tender to run them.
How much will the Bus Services Bill cost?
The Bill is expected to cost £199.3million over 15 years. The vast majority of that (£166.3million) is made up of a mix of Welsh Government guidance and support. Compliance – which will fall mainly on bus operators – will cost £33million over 15 years.
In terms of the benefits, they’re expected to total £312million over the 15-year period. Councils that run their own bus services could generate an extra £124million, while there’s expected to be an economic benefit of £132million due to improved bus services and passenger numbers. Improved information is worth £37.5million, while improved partnership working is worth £18million.