West Yorkshire leaders consider spending £150,000 to help make bus franchising decision

Political leaders in West Yorkshire are being asked to spend up to £150,000 to help decide whether the county's struggling bus services could be taken under public control.

At a meeting today, political leaders on West Yorkshire Combined Authority will take a decision on whether to use more public money to explore its options to improve local services.

And they are being urged by unions to take the bus network into public control, with the TUC saying the pandemic shows "private companies cannot provide value for money when running a public service".

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Officials in Yorkshire are keenly following what is going on in the North West for signs of whether a London-style franchising model for buses could work in the region.

Levels of bus patronage have been declining over the years and dropped dramatically during lockdown.

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Currently in Greater Manchester, as in Yorkshire, individual bus companies decide their own routes, frequencies, tickets and standards. In areas they don’t run, the public sector pays to fill in the gaps in the market where it can.

Under proposals launched last year by metro mayor Andy Burnham, bus services would be under Greater Manchester’s control and the region's combined authority would set the routes, frequencies, tickets and standards while bus operators run the services in return for a flat fee.

London has operated this system since the mid-1980s when the rest of the country had bus services deregulated and the capital is the only area to see a consistent rise in bus usage since then, though this has tailed off in recent years.

Using the Bus Services Act to bring the network under public control is one of the options that the combined authority has been considering for months.

But the future of the bus industry, which has been in decline for deaces remains uncertain because of the collapse in passenger numbers during the lockdown.

Last year, the combined authority commissioned Ernst & Young to advise on what steps it could take after it was announced that bus operator First was up for sale, a move that has since been withdrawn.

But a report going before today's meeting says "there is a need to understand the financial, legal and technical issues faced by the industry." It adds: "Additional funding is required to access technical expertise where the skills are currently not available in-house, an indicative budget of up to £150,000 is proposed."

Among the other options being considered is allowing the bus network to be largely privately-run, though this could lead to a "significant shrinkage" if revenue from passengers remains low.

Another option is reinstating the bus network which existed pre-pandemic, with non-viable services potentially funded by the public sector to keep them running.

The authority's transport lead, Leeds city council leader Judith Blake, has written to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps asking for the emergency bus funding currently delivered by the Government to be locally-led.

TUC Regional Secretary Bill Adams said: "Working families deserve a bus network fit for the 21st century. Not one run on the cheap for the benefit of shareholders.

“We look forward to seeing council leaders vote for public control of our buses.”