Headlines: December 13th, 2006



Government proposals amounting to the most fundamental changes in the operation of bus services for 20 years have been greeted by local government as a victory for common sense and welcomed as vital to the regeneration of towns and cities. The plans would give councils more say in areas like timetabling and the cost of journeys as well allowing them to tailor services to meet local needs. The measures are contained in “Putting Passengers First”, which was unveiled by the Transport Secretary, Douglas Alexander, and which outlines a raft of proposals designed to increase the number of bus passengers in the longer term.

The key changes being considered include greater partnership working between local authorities and operators, making it easier for the authorities to have a say in bus frequency, timetables and fares. On the subject of quality contracts the proposals would, in the right circumstances, make it a realistic option for local authorities to introduce schemes specially tailored to meet local requirements.

On punctuality the document proposes granting greater enforcement powers to the Traffic Commissioners so that for the first time they could hold local authorities and not just bus operators to account for the performance of local services. Community groups and charities might also be allowed to run services in poorly served areas and bus subsidies will be used to support Government objectives on the environment.

Douglas Alexander said that for many people buses were the means of access to jobs and shops as well as the way in which they could stay in touch with family and friends. Since the deregulation of services, in many areas the needs of passengers had been neglected. “In some areas, where local authorities and bus operators work in partnership for the benefit of passengers, the number of people using buses has gone up,” he said but added, “In too many areas passengers are simply not getting the services they expect, and as a result passenger numbers have declined.” He believed that by sharing best practice and giving councils and operators the tools they needed to work together, all passengers would begin to see the benefits of top quality bus services.

The Local Government Association has welcomed the proposals. Professor John Whitelegg, deputy chair of its Transport and Regeneration Board, said they were a victory for common sense. “The only way we can get more passengers on the buses is to give local people more say over services where they live. Improvements to public transport are vital if we are to regenerate our cities, towns and villages. Extra bus use will be good for the environment, the economy and local people,” he added. Without the proposals, he said, it would not be possible for local government to deliver the Government’s target of increasing passenger numbers.

The LGA also pointed to research, conducted for it by Ipsos MORI, which showed public support for giving more control over local bus services to councils. Almost a third of those questioned agreed strongly with the idea and 36 per cent tended to agree.