Why are the Tories trying to ban councils from running bus services?

TSSA and Labour call Bus Services Bill amendment an 'ideological' attack on the public sector


A major transport union has attacked the government for putting an amendment into the new Bus Services Bill which will block councils setting up their own bus companies.

The Transport and Salaried Staff Association (TSSA) – one of the largest transport unions – condemned an amendment put in on Thursday, which will effectively further deregulate the bus industry.

The Bill had its Second Reading in the House of Lords on Thursday, and has come under controversy in an era of supposed ‘devolution’ for putting significant limits on what councils can and can’t do when it comes to local bus services.

New mayors will arguably have little control over buses in their areas if they’re banned from actually running them – especially in an atmosphere of tight budgets: since 2010 over 2,400 routes have been downgraded or withdrawn altogether.

Buses are still the most popular form of transport in the country, with over 4.65 billion journeys conducted in the financial year of 2014/2015, according to government figures.

London is the only place in the UK where they can currently be regulated (through Transport for London) – but everywhere else councils are restricted from directly controlling fares and routes.

But in the government’s words, the Bill:

‘will give councils new powers to work in partnership with companies to improve journeys for passengers, and bring in new technology including on-board Wi-Fi.’

So they can help private companies – but they can’t cut out the middleman and do the job themselves, leading Labour to brand the move ‘ideological’.

Local authorities can currently run companies which operate bus services – taking out the profit motive and introducing an element of accountability into an increasingly expensive and cut-back market, as councils slash subsidies due to austerity.

However, the TSSA are warning the Bus Service Bill could jeopardise the dozen or so council-owned bus services which still exist – services which regularly rank among the best in the country, and which often compete with private providers to drive down fares and provide unprofitable routes.

It will also prevent new municipal services being set up – despite some Conservative councils looking at options.

Reading’s bus services are currently run by a council company, and the Deputy Leader of the Council Tony Page has also spoken out against the Bill, noting the municipal Reading Buses is currently the UK Bus Operator of the Year:

‘I see a real and present danger in this.

I think the clause is petty and vindictive because local authorities have shown in the last few years that they can still deliver efficient and effective services in a storm of cuts from the Government.

Localism is dead.’

Nottingham’s council-owned bus service has the best passenger satisfaction out of any provider in the UK.

The Bill has been described as a ‘missed opportunity’ to enable councils to deal with the huge cut backs in – particularly rural – bus provision and hikes in fares that have seen companies benefit while communities miss out.

In a fascinating Lords debate today, Lord Young of Cookham – the Secretary of State for Transport who privatised the railways – stood up for regulation of bus services, saying:

‘[Regulation] has enabled Transport for London to plan, procure and manage a network of services in a consistent and co-ordinated way…

Through collaborative work with others, this has led to increased service levels, improved quality of services and significant increases in patronage—way above what has been seen outside the capital.’

General Secretary Manuel Cortes tweeted:

The TSSA are alleging that the government are worried public-operated services being run more effectively and with cheaper fares could shame private operators, with the government under pressure from the transport lobby.

They have called the move ‘vindictive and unfair’, with Cortes saying:

‘If ministers really believe in devolution, they should encourage competition from the public sector, not ban it outright. Why should private operators be allowed to rip off passengers when there is a cheaper proven public option?’

Josiah Mortimer is a regular contributor to Left Foot Forward. You can follow him on Twitter@josiahmortimer.

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