Thirty years ago, the British government deregulated the bus market outside London. The move meant the needs of passengers were to be met largely by the market, with some subsidy from local government to incentivise bus companies to meet a greater range of needs through the provision of “socially necessary services”.
It was known even then this would leave gaps in provision and un-met needs – needs that continue to grow as commercial and subsidised services are withdrawn in the face of cuts to local public spending. But the act of Parliament which deregulated the bus market did at least provide the legal framework for local communities to come together and form their own not-for-profit transport solutions: community transport.
Too often we still see people excluded from the mainstream bus network due to their rural location, disability, or simply the time at which they want to travel. Now a new Bus Services Bill, which will provide a once in a generation opportunity to create a fundamental shift towards better local transport networks across England, is working its way through Parliament. If we are to develop a bus network that allows people to embrace their full social and economic potential, then we must keep a relentless focus on accessibility in that bill.
To achieve this, it is vital to question the purpose of our bus network, and the motives that fuel its development. In a deregulated market there is not a sufficient framework to enable non-profitable services to prosper.
This may in part be addressed through the introduction of Enhanced Quality Partnerships in the Bill. These partnerships will enable local authorities, community groups and bus operators to agree standards on a range of measures – fares, bus times, frequency of service, vehicle standards and ticketing products. Passengers should be at the forefront of consultations when introducing new partnerships and deciding which measures to adopt.
What we would like to see is a greater narrative about the importance of accessibility to the bus network. To achieve this, the Bill should advance a measure of accessibility to routes as a key criterion to judging the success of new partnerships between local authorities, communities, and bus networks.
Of course, one way of increasing the coverage of bus services is by network design through franchising. On its own, franchising might well deliver little that can’t be provided through partnership agreements. But if franchising schemes could provide a framework that encourages collaboration between the not-for-profit and commercial sector from the outset, it becomes possible to imagine a situation where the different strengths of the sector are used to their full potential, to ensure we have a bus network that strives to works collaboratively.
Finally, if we put access as the key measure of success in the Bus Services Bill, this means information also needs to be of a high quality. If we are to have an increase in the accessibility of routes, data needs to be open, to enable greater information and planning of services to enhance our networks and improve travel confidence.
The Bus Services Bill may be our best chance to radically reimagine the way we increase access to the bus network, and in turn improve social and economic opportunities through better transport links. It will be Parliament that decide the bill’s direction – and imaginative local authorities who will decide its impact.