This system, called deregulation, has resulted in a drop of over 60 per cent in bus passenger journeys across the county as each company has shrunk the network, hiked fares and introduced confusing ticketing.
Evidence from the Government shows that, even before the pandemic, commercially run buses in West Yorkshire were travelling over 10 million fewer miles than just six years before. These cuts have a real impact on local people, isolating them from their communities, employment opportunities and even health care.
It is no surprise then that buses were one of the key issues in the race to elect the region’s first metro mayor while the Centre for Cities also highlighted bringing buses into public control, through a system called franchising, as a “top-three priority”.
Franchising would allow the mayor to control the network, with private operators winning contracts to run specific services. Crucially, public control would allow local authorities to introduce cross-subsidy, saving smaller and less profitable routes that private operators might otherwise cut.
Tracy Brabin, the newly-elected mayor, made bringing buses into public control one of her flagship policies, promising to put “people before profit”. She highlighted that her plan would allow the introduction of “simple fares, contactless ticketing and greener buses”.
Deeply concerned about the future of the region’s buses, local people turned up en masse to an online public meeting with Brabin and the other candidates.
Having heard the needs of local people, Brabin escalated her pledge, promising to start the first stage of the public control process, a statutory investigation, in her first 100 days as mayor.
However, Brabin’s pledge is not the only reason buses will top the agenda in her first few weeks in office. Just before the election campaign kicked off in earnest, the Government released its National Bus Strategy.
It says that a local authority must let the Department for Transport know if they are going for a partnership, a partnership and investigating public control, or public control, by the end of June. Partnerships require local government to negotiate deals with the current operators while retaining the existing deregulated system. Councils are expected to use public investment in bus lanes, increasing the profits of private companies, in return for relatively minor improvements to services.
If by the end of June, West Yorkshire has failed to either commit to an enhanced partnership or establish it is on the franchising pathway, the Government has threatened to withdraw funding for bus services in the region. This would have a devastating impact on our communities, cutting people off from their workplaces, schools and families. Brabin must act fast to avoid plunging the region’s bus network into turmoil.
While she may be able to work towards public control from inside an Enhanced Partnership Scheme, Brabin would find it much harder to realise her election pledge if she becomes stuck with a partnership model.
To avoid this, Brabin should first seek assurance from the DfT that the £150,000 local leaders put towards investigating public control last year means that West Yorkshire is already on the franchising pathway. If the Government disagrees, she should commit to a partnership only after showing her determination to deliver on her election pledge, by issuing a statutory notice to launch the franchising investigation formally.
Despite the technical challenges, Brabin should not feel daunted by the Government’s deadline. After all, it only requires the West Yorkshire Combined Authority to indicate that it has started investigating public control – hardly an insurmountable goal. Instead, the short time frame is an opportunity to show local people that she means business and will not wait around to start winning change for the region.
When Tracy Brabin was chosen as Labour’s candidate for West Yorkshire Mayor, she said she was running to become the “Andy Burnham of West Yorkshire”. If Brabin hopes to follow in Burnham’s footsteps and increase her majority at the next election, she would be wise to act now to save our buses.
Matthew Topham is based in Ilkley and works as a campaigner with the Better Buses for West Yorkshire coalition.
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