Devolution means councils climbing back on the buses

By: SA Mathieson
Published: Tuesday, October 28, 2014 - 11:32 GMT Jump to Comments

For some companies, working with government and doing business in devolved city regions will mean big challenges: some new some old.

The last few days have seen a significant moment for companies working with government in the story of devolution to England’s cities. This was neither the publication of the RSA City Growth Commission’s final recommendations nor the government’s support for HS3 high-speed train lines across the north of England, interesting though both were.

Instead, it involved seven local authorities in the north east voting to change local bus regulations. While the report and the HS3 support got much more publicity, the vote represents what could be the start of a major shift in the balance of power from companies to councils.

The authorities in question have since April made up the North East Combined Authority – a collaboration rather than a merger, although one blessed by Parliament. Last week, they voted to shift bus services in and around Newcastle-upon-Tyne to a quality contract scheme, effectively reversing the deregulation Margaret Thatcher’s government imposed on bus services across the country in 1986.

Nexus, the local passenger transport executive which runs the area’s metro, is set to take over the setting of fares, routes and frequencies, as is the case in London. The plans would allow integrated ticketing, like London’s Oyster card system.

Bus operators including Stagecoach are furious, and plan to continue to fight the plans. It is obvious why: in the capital, bus operators are almost literally invisible, their corporate colours banished in favour of London bus red, their room to innovate removed. Transport for London sells the tickets, sets the routes and makes the rules. Unlike underground trains it doesn’t actually own or operate the buses; this is left to 22 operators (with a number having common parent companies, including Arriva and Abellio). But the companies basically do what they are told, and are paid centrally.

Elsewhere, bus operators have ruled the roost, with local authorities subsidising specific routes rather than running the whole thing. In many areas, a single operator has a monopoly. In others including Greater Manchester ‘bus wars’ have seen rival operators trying to put each other out of business, flooding routes with buses and causing traffic congestion and confusion in the process.

That now looks likely to change across much of England. One of the RSA City Growth Commission’s recommendations was that the seven million people in the ‘ManSheffLeedsPool’ group of cities joined by the M62 (and perhaps in future HS3) should have an equivalent of London’s Oyster card as part of much greater transport integration for the north of England.

The 10 Greater Manchester councils, already working together as a combined authority, last week released their own set of proposals, including re-regulation of the city region’s bus services. This week has seen Chancellor George Osborne setting up a new body called Transport for the North, charged with working with the government to produce a transport strategy for the region.

Discussions of devolution tend to focus on things like taxes, elected mayors and economic development – all at one remove from suppliers. But those promoting city regions often have quite specific things in mind, including on transport. They have seen how London’s direct management has helped increase bus usage through integrated ticketing, marketing and consistent standards of service, and they want to follow suit. If that’s not to the taste of some bus operators, tough.

More generally, local authorities outside the south of England are generally keener than Whitehall on having greater control of suppliers, including where they spend their money (social value points awarded if this is in the council area concerned), how they treat their staff – and how they deliver services.

For some companies working with government, accustomed to Whitehall’s laissez-faire attitude, such changes will be a shock. If they want to do business in the new city regions, they may just have to get used to it.

Follow the latest news on devolution to city regions with daily email service Council News Monitor

North East Councils one step closer to taking control of bus services in transport shake-up (The Journal, Newcastle)

Greater Manchester devolution must happen at same speed as in Scotland (Manchester Evening News)

Sheffield Council leader: HS3 rail plans focus on ‘speed not economy’ (The Star, Sheffield)

Manchester councils demand more control of £22bn budget (BBC News)

Winning public sector business in the regions needs a local presence (Supplier Side, August)

Extension of low carbon emission bus fund given the green light (TheInformationDaily.com, October 2013)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.



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