• Bus Franchising and Community Transport

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    • Bus Franchising and Community Transport
    • by David Kelly
      Director for Scotland

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    Bus franchising has risen to the top of the political agenda across the UK.

    Andy Burnham, the well-known Mayor of Greater Manchester, has become something of a poster child for bringing control over local buses back into public hands since the iterative rollout of the region’s Bee Network, which began in 2023.

    Half of Greater Manchester’s buses are now part of the new, integrated and franchised system with full coverage expected by 2025. Local trains might also become part of the Bee Network by 2028.

    Looking to Manchester

    Other cities and regions are now looking to the recent experience of Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), as well as the long-standing success of franchising with Transport for London (TfL) and a municipal bus company in Edinburgh with Lothian Buses, to see whether they can and should follow their lead.

    The Welsh Government is developing a ‘roadmap to bus reform’, which includes plans for regional franchising to deliver a vision of ‘one network, one timetable, one ticket’.

    Local buses were a hot topic in the latest English mayoral elections, with the new leaders of the West Midlands and the North East among the successful candidates promising to pursue franchising, just as West Yorkshire and Liverpool City Region are already. The Labour Party has been talking about accelerating this progress if Keir Starmer is in Downing Street after the next UK General Election.

    Meanwhile, north of the border, 2019’s Transport (Scotland) Act gives Scottish local authorities the power to create franchises and municipal bus companies. Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) in the West of Scotland is the first to get started on the (long) journey towards those destinations. There are some concerns about the likely speed (or otherwise) of the process, which could take up to 7 years, according to SPT.

    For us at CTA, the key question is:

    What will franchising mean for our sector, our members and the people and communities you serve?

    Strathclyde Regional Bus Strategy

    This was at the heart of a recent discussion with our members and SPT at an online CTA event focusing on the new Strathclyde Regional Bus Strategy (SRBS).

    The headline proposal of the SRBS is that SPT takes forward ‘local bus service franchising’ over a large geography and regional economy with a major population which stretches across Argyll and Bute, East Dunbartonshire, East Ayrshire, East Renfrewshire, Glasgow, Inverclyde, North Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, South Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire.

    We’ve 44 members of all shapes and sizes across this area. Through the event and an online survey, we gathered their views and perspectives to shape CTA’s position on the SRBS.

    Franchising means that decisions about local buses, including routes, timetables, fares, hours of operation and service quality standards, are made by a public authority, in this case SPT. Bus operators can bid for contracts to run services which meet these conditions and standards. Under the current deregulated, fragmented and privatised model, these decisions are made by commercial bus operators seeking to maximise profit.

    The SRBS also proposes to ‘further investigate creating small-scale municipal bus operations’ to deliver ‘socially necessary services’ in some parts of the region ‘where private operators are limited’, rather than a larger-scale operation like Lothian Buses on the East Coast. It might be the case that some Community Transport operators could potentially deliver these services.

    The Status Quo Has Failed

    We believe that everyone should have access to local transport which meets their needs no matter who they are or where they live. Public transport should put people first, not profit. Services should be designed and delivered in the public interest, rather than according to private interests, to meet the needs of people and communities. These values are at the heart of the ethos and mission of Community Transport, which is always for a social purpose and never for a profit.

    We therefore welcome SPT’s proposals to reform and improve local buses in the West of Scotland, because the data, evidence and lived experiences of passengers demonstrates that the status quo has failed. In many ways, the need for the region’s extensive Community Transport sector is proof of this failure.

    Local bus routes, frequencies and use are all in decline and have been falling for years. Across Scotland as a whole, while ticket prices have risen significantly, 25 million miles of bus routes have been lost since 2019. As a result, bus passenger numbers have fallen by a third. Across the West of Scotland, this means 70 million fewer bus journeys.

    These trends need to be urgently reversed if we are to tackle climate change, transport poverty and unequal access to amenities, education, employment, healthcare, public services and recreation. To achieve net zero, Scotland needs to return bus use to levels last seen in the early 1980s, just before the privatisation and deregulation of the sector.

    Availability, Affordability and Accessibility

    We agree with SPT, as well as campaign groups like Better Buses for Strathclyde, that it is time for a new and more ambitious approach which increases the availability, affordability and accessibility of local bus services.

    However, our members are clear that, in the transition to franchising, there will need to be careful consideration of how and where Community Transport and Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) services (including but not limited to community-owned buses) fit into this new landscape. Our sector should be involved in process to design franchise frameworks. Our sector and our passengers a seat at the table.

    In Greater Manchester, for example, DRT services haven’t been part of the initial rollout. CTA would like to see involvement of Community Transport operators in all future franchising areas at as early a stage as possible. This early engagement holds a number of potential benefits, from building intelligence about the DRT and accessible services currently operating in an area to ensuring better engagement with passengers excluded from existing public transport services.

    Some Community Transport operators will want to participate in this process – and they will need franchise packages and procurement processes to be fairly designed. Other Community Transport operators will not – and they will need to continue to be fairly funded from elsewhere. Either will be a legitimate choice.

    Impact on Community Transport

    Franchising may well reduce the demand or need for some Community Transport services, if implemented properly. This should be welcomed, although this may not be comfortable for everyone and some operators will rightly have concerns.

    We should remember the bigger picture and keep our eyes on the prize: a world where everyone, everywhere has access to local transport which meets their needs.

    A modern bus network should minimise the gaps in our transport system, minimise the number of people with unmet transport needs and, ultimately, minimise the communities who have to organise their own transport solutions.

    However, this is not inevitable and is likely to be an uneven and gradual process across the region. Equally, there will always remain a need for and a value in Community Transport in the West of Scotland, especially for older people, disabled people and rural residents. Even in countries like Denmark or big cities like London with world-class, first-rate public transport systems, DRT services like Dial-a-Ride and Community Transport are still an essential part of the mix of modes and operators.

    The Tools to Get the Job Done

    Franchising is not a silver bullet. It will not by itself solve all of the problems facing the bus sector today, from driver shortages to the need for more bus priority measures.

    But it will give SPT, like TfL and TfGM, more of the tools they need to reverse the decline of local buses and usher in a new era for public transport in the public interest in the West of Scotland.

    Our Consultation Response

    You can read our full response to SPT’s consultation on the SRBS proposals here.

    If you’d like to get in touch to discuss, feel free to send an email to david.kelly@ctauk.org.

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