The running of local bus services needs a “democratic kick” to bring them under greater control of the communities they serve, says a South Leeds Councillor.
Councillor Paul Truswell (Labour Middleton and Belle Isle), chairs the Infrastructure and Investment Scrutiny Board that conducted an investigation into bus services last year. The Scrutiny Board concluded that services would improve only if passengers, communities and their elected representatives were able to exercise much greater influence over private bus operators. It recommended franchising – a system where councils can impose contracts on bus operators for the services they run, with penalties for failures.
The Scrutiny Board is continuing to monitor measures intended to improve services, and progress on introducing a franchising system. Councillor Truswell said:
“Over the years, people have become so fed up with the continual failings of the system that they think it’s pointless complaining to the operators. For example, the 13 and 13A service in my own area frequently misses and leaves people waiting in lengthy queues in all weathers.
“In 1986, Mrs Thatcher and her Conservative Government removed bus services from Council control and handed them to private operators. They promised that this privatisation, or deregulation as they called it, would increase quality, promote competition, and provide better value-for-money.
“Totally the opposite has happened. We have a virtual monopoly operator. Operators have made huge profits in our area. They can basically run services where, when and how they like. Over the years, too many services have been chopped and changed, are missing or late, and fare prices have gone through the roof. It’s cheaper for people in many circumstances to get a taxi. Passengers, communities and their elected representatives have virtually no influence or comeback on the private operators.”
“When local councils ran our local bus service they were accountable to local communities through their Councillors. It wasn’t perfect, but the community and their elected representatives had a say and some influence. Services that ran at a profit could subsidise those routes that didn’t, but that were regarded as needed for reasons such as getting people to work, to health appointments, education, shops and leisure facilities.
Councillor Truswell said it was no surprise that passengers had voted with their feet, and that bus use has plummeted in West Yorkshire by around 45 million journeys per year since 2004 alone. In London, where services were never deregulated, and where there is franchising, bus use has grown.
“Recent legislation allows for more formal partnerships between the Council and bus operators, but these have to be agreed by the operators, which gives them the veto over anything they believe will affect their profits. What we really need is either franchising or the services returning local authorities. Franchising makes the operators subject to a contract regarding the way they provide services, with penalties when they fail to do so. Unfortunately, the present government has now outlawed councils running their own bus companies.”
Councillor Truswell said a recent law – the Bus Services Act – allows areas with Elected Mayors to introduce franchising. Areas like Leeds without an Elected Mayor have to obtain the permission of the Government to introduce franchising. Councils are still waiting for guidance from the government ministers about how local Councils could pursue franchising where they do not have an elected mayor.