Lords aim to put bus franchising ‘on a level playing field’ for all councils

The Bus Services Bill has been amended in the House of Lords to remove a requirement for authorities other than combined authorities to apply to the transport secretary for bus franchising powers.

The bill initially offered the powers, designed to introduce Transport for London-style transport services around the country, only to combined authorities with elected mayors.

When the bill entered the House of Lords on Wednesday, however, the government introduced proposals for other forms of local authority to receive the powers in limited circumstances.

But a new amendment, proposed by Lord Kennedy, a Labour spokesperson for communities and local government, would allow all councils to obtain franchising powers without needing central government approval.

Lord Kennedy said the amendment would “put the whole question of franchising on a level playing field”.

Speaking to PSE recently, Cllr Andrew Fender, chair of Transport for Greater Manchester, which has announced its intention to seek franchising powers, said that Greater Manchester’s devolution deal would have “collapsed” without them.

Baroness Randerson, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson, who also supports amendments to the bill in favour of all forms of local authority having franchising powers, said that “all the signs are that the government are abandoning the idea” of elected mayors.

“If the government do not go ahead with creating more mayoral authorities, the right to franchising is likely in effect to be restricted to a handful – three local authorities,” she said.

“Franchising will not be an easy step for local authorities to undertake. My view is that probably very few would wish to do so. There are lots of checks and balances already in the bill ensuring that local authorities do it only in a thorough and highly professional manner.”

Theresa May is rumoured to be considering removing the requirement for new devolution deals to include elected mayors.

However, Lord Ahmad, the parliamentary under-secretary to the Department for Transport, said: “It remains the government’s position that the decision and model we are pursuing is the right one.”

He said that the government was “not excluding anyone”, but bus franchising powers should remain with local authorities with elected mayors because they have a direct responsibility for transport.

In other areas, the uncertainty caused by the fact that the council could introduce franchising at any time would harm the industry, noted Lord Ahmad.

The amendment passed by 167 votes to 150, but still has to pass through debate in the House of Commons.

Cllr Martin Tett, the LGA’s transport spokesperson, said: “This is significant step in the right direction for councils. The LGA has campaigned hard to persuade the government that, to improve bus provision throughout the country, all areas need the automatic rights to franchising, rather than just those with directly-elected mayors, as has been proposed.

“Having to apply to the secretary of state could mean lengthy delays for councils.”

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