Buses Bill will force authorities to accept elected mayor – Lords

The Bus Services Bill risks being used by the government as a political manoeuvre to force more local authorities to accept elected mayors, peers have said.

The Bill, which was announced in last month’s Queen’s Speech and received its second reading in the House of Lords yesterday, will allow combined authorities with an elected mayor to gain control over bus service franchising.

Labour peer Baroness Jones of Whitchurch said that while her party supported the idea of the Bill, the powers it contains should be offered to all local authorities.

Baroness Jones said: “We believe that the powers in the Bill to regulate local bus services via franchising should be made available to all areas that want them, not just combined authorities with an elected mayor.

“We are concerned that this provision is being made for political reasons, to force authorities to go down the elected mayor route, rather than what is in the best interest of local bus services and their passengers.”

Elected mayors have proven controversial. When plans for the West Midlands Combined Authority were approved by the House of Lords on Tuesday, Lord Hunt of King’s Heath criticised the government for introducing an elected mayor to the area despite the idea being rejected in a referendum.

Although the Bill contains provisions for other local authorities to introduce devolved franchises, such decisions require permission from the transport secretary, which Baroness Jones said was “against all the principles of localism and devolution which the Bill claims to champion”.

She also said that the Bill currently only allows local authorities to use enhanced powers if a sufficient number of local bus operators were in agreement, which could give large bus operators the final say over whether new powers were agreed.

In addition, she criticised the Bill for banning local authorities from awarding contracts to municipal operators.

Labour’s Lord Bradley, from Greater Manchester, said that the Bill was “incredibly important” for the city, which has announced its intention of creating a devolved bus service.

He repeated calls for the Bill’s powers to be extended beyond combined authorities, and asked for reassurance that the draft regulations and guidance were delivered in a timeline that matched the devolution process in Greater Manchester.

Lord Ahmad, parliamentary under-secretary to the Department for Transport, replied that the powers in the Bill could “provide the potential for local transport authorities other than mayoral combined authorities to access franchising powers if there is a strong case for doing so”.

On Tuesday, the County Councils Network (CCN) wrote to Andrew Jones MP, the minister for buses, asking that the plans be expanded to all councils to mitigate the impact of cuts on bus services in rural areas.

Cllr Anne Western, economic growth spokesperson for the CCN, said: “Rural communities arguably need sustainable bus services more than their urban counterparts, yet this policy favours the city, not the shire.

“We want to work with government to design a Bill that both sustains and improves bus networks, but also ensures that counties are empowered to redesign services, otherwise a golden opportunity to put public transport back on an upward trajectory will be missed.”

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