Yesterday Ed Miliband announced Labour’s plans for devolution.
Powers to regulate public transport will be right there at the centre of them. Labour’s plans will give the county and city regions powers at the moment enjoyed only by London.
James Lewis, Chair of Metro West Yorkshire, has warmly welcomed them. He and his Labour colleagues in Leeds have been calling for such powers for a long time. They would enable Leeds to plan, oversee and develop a transport system that really works for local people – including for those who need it and use it most.
It’s great to see them at the heart of truly meaningful devolution.
Ed Miliband’s plans include
‘Giving city and county regions more power over their public transport networks so they are able to set the right bus routes and have fairer fares, as well as integrate their transport services to help working people and businesses succeed in their areas. This will give regions similar powers to regulate their bus services as those in London.’
James is delighted.
He has written before about the central importance of bus transport – and about the problems which de-regulation has brought.
He recalled last year how a deputation of Holbeck residents protesting at the decision by First, the city’s biggest bus company, to cut services to their inner-city suburb approached the council.
‘This was a commercial decision made to a service that residents feel is public because buses get them to other services, shops and jobs.
‘In local transport terms rail services command reams of attention and publicity, yet the reality is that it is bus services that are the real people-movers. In West Yorkshire over 90 per cent of public transport journeys are made on the bus and for communities which are not on the rail network buses are the sole option.
‘Buses are the form of transport used most often by people on the lowest incomes.
Public transport plays a huge role in people’s ability to find, accept and retain work – 64 per cent of jobseekers don’t drive or have access to a car.
In seeking to achieve lower unemployment and better quality employment it is buses that play a crucial role.
However, since privatisation and deregulation the network has shrunk and fares have risen much more than inflation and overall passenger numbers have been in decline.
‘Outside London bus services are totally deregulated so the companies that run buses are free to pick routes, timetables and fares. But the market is concentrated so in West Yorkshire two companies, First and Arriva, have over 80 per cent of the market and people only have one provider at most bus stops in West Yorkshire so can’t seek redress for pricing and punctuality failings through market choice.
Interestingly, the highest satisfaction by farepaying passengers is Nottingham – where one of the biggest bus operators is run by the city council. This shows that where bus services are more directly accountable passengers feel the benefits.
‘Deregulation also makes integrating all public transport difficult as bus companies price tickets for their own services cheaper than tickets that cover an area regardless of operator. For people living on the outskirts of the city, buses into Leeds may be operated by one company but buses in Leeds are run by another. Making a simple two-leg journey to a hospital or university in Leeds can mean paying a 20 per cent fare premium for travelling on two bus companies – hardly value for money.
‘In the current fiscal environment it is inevitable that efficiency is scrutinised. Around a third of the cost of bus services in West Yorkshire is met by the taxpayer through directly supporting services and also through payments for younger and older people’s passes and a fuel duty rebate. However, as the residents of Holbeck found out, complete deregulation doesn’t mean this funding can determine a network that delivers accessibility.
‘In Tyne and Wear the transport authority has moved to formally consult on using re-regulation powers of a Quality Bus Contract on the premise that it can save £7m per year of subsidy while getting improvements. Department for Transport figures show that the London system of regulation cost less per trip for both the farepayer and subsidy compared to the deregulated environment in big cities.
‘Fundamentally, the debate about bus services is wider than regulation. There is a need to improve the road network to make routes more efficient by making journeys more reliable and reducing the time – and running costs – of having buses stuck in traffic. I believe this has to be in the context of seeing savings retained in the locations they are generated. Reduced running cost should be reflected in ticket pricing and subsidy costs, not higher profits being taken out of an area.
‘London-style powers of regulation look very attractive in the outcomes that can be achieved, not just in terms of an increase in passengers but also in terms of seeking value for money, better reliability, and being able to determine a bus network to ensure wider public policy outcomes can be achieved.’
That was James a year or so ago. So naturally he’s delighted by Ed Miliband’s proposals, which would give Leeds so much of what it needs.
‘To have the leader of a political party making bus regulation front and centre of their devolution policy is a breakthrough moment for bus users in the city regions. Transport for London is the only organisation that has power to set complete bus networks, timetables and fares. We have been arguing long and hard that what is good enough for London on buses is good enough for our cities too.
If the powers are simplified so that we can regulate bus services in the same way that London does then we can bring in Oyster-style smart, simple and integrated ticketing.
We can give guarantees on service quality and reward those bus companies that deliver, and penalise those that don’t.
We can make sure buses connect rather than compete with each other, and that bus, trains and trams are part of single networks accountable to users through better consumer rights, proper consultation and via their elected representatives.
We can also put a stop to the abuse of local monopolies by bus companies to make excessive profits and we can fix what is a broken market to provide far better value for money for taxpayers.
Sorting out urban bus services matters in so many ways for our cities because buses are the main form of public transport.
They get the workless to the jobs, young people into education and training, and older and disabled people out of isolation.
They are relied upon by the poorest yet at the same time benefit everyone by reducing congestion for all road users through taking cars off the road.
Being able to plan, develop and oversee public transport is a fundamental building block of any credible plan for meaningful devolution.’
Being able to plan public transport is something taken for granted by London and cities right round the world.
Now Labour is proposing to restore those rights to the city and county regions.
Britain Really Will Be Better under Labour.
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