The Bus Services Bill escaped the focus of commentators when it was mentioned in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech – but for people living in most of the country, it could make a significant difference to their daily lives. Not only that, but this bill paves the way for a key political battle in next year’s inaugural “Metro Mayor” elections.
Outside of London, our bus networks don’t work particularly well. Across most of England, bus companies can in theory compete “on the street”, vying with one another for passengers at the same stop, and on the same route. In practice, there is little or no competition in most parts of the country. Large providers monopolise whole markets in some places; don’t run any services at all where they see no short-term demand; and cause congestion and waste where they do compete, with half-empty buses jostling for passengers in our busy town and city centres.
For many people this means an unpleasant daily experience. Passengers have to buy a different ticket if their journey means changing bus companies. There’s more pollution in the air in our increasingly populated city centres. And the quality of these services is often poor in punctuality, frequency and the standard of the bus itself. Bus passenger journeys outside of London have been in decline for decades.
London might as well be a different country: in the capital, mayor Khan and Transport for London are in charge of their bus network. There is plenty of private sector competition: buses compete to run a particular service, but these contracts and routes are specified by the transport authority. This doesn’t just mean TfL can make the whole transport network work far more smoothly for passengers; it also enables them to invest more, or set, freeze or cap hourly “hopper” fares. And of course they are able to roll-out a particularly effective form of integrated smart ticketing – first Oyster, and now contactless. London now accounts for more than half of all the country’s bus passenger journeys, and patronage is rising – unlike elsewhere.
The Bus Services Bill looks set to redresses this disparity. It will allow areas outside of London to apply for London-style powers. The preference is for areas with new metro mayors, but applications from other areas will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
This is a sensible change, long overdue, and should be welcomed. Not only does it stand to benefit bus passengers directly, but businesses will also profit from a more efficient transport network, and the economic growth this can support.
To enable this, the legislation needs to ensure these powers are an option in practice. It cannot present onerous legal, financial and political obstructions to areas who want to take up these powers, and parts of the country which don’t elect mayors should not be left out.
But once the Bill is passed, the debate will move from Westminster onto the streets of our major cities: buses are likely to be a crucial political battleground for Metro Mayors next year.
The candidates declaring their interest in these new powerful positions surely know that buses will be perhaps the most important and political power the mayor’s office will hold. Two thirds of public transport journeys are made by bus. But even for those who don’t use buses the impact of the Bill will be visible: it may seem superficial, but there is a great symbolism and political significance to the fact that the livery, the colour and branding of the buses, could be set by these new figureheads.
If the Bus Services Bill lets them, the mark of the mayor could be on every street, as well as in the pocket of every passenger, in a few short years.
Luke Raikes is a research fellow at IPPR North and tweets @lukeraikes.