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Greater detail needed ‘without delay’ on bus franchising consent powers

If the government wants to reinstate the consent requirement for local authorities seeking franchising powers under the new Bus Services Bill, then “much greater detail” of the transport secretary’s role is required.

This is according to a new report from the Transport Select Committee, which stated that while the Bill presents a major opportunity, it has included “unnecessarily cumbersome” processes and scrutiny has been hampered by the “government’s failure to publish key secondary legislation and guidance”.

Last month, members of the House of Lords tabled an amendment to the Bill to remove a requirement for local authorities other than combined authorities to apply to the transport secretary for bus franchising powers.

The Transport Select Committee argued: “In our view, it is primarily for the local transport authority to decide whether or not franchising is appropriate for any particular area and we agree with the majority in the Lords that the process set out in the Bill as introduced is unnecessarily cumbersome.”

The influential cross-party committee accepted there may be a case “in principle” for reinstating the requirement for the secretary of state’s consent before any individual council other than a mayoral combined authority can franchise. However, it added that “this has been difficult to assess, in part because the draft guidance was not available for our witnesses to consider when they gave evidence to us”.

They stated that if the government wishes to reinstate the consent, “it must produce more detailed guidance on how the secretary of state will exercise these powers”, and this must be done “without delay”. 

A key consideration for the transport secretary, MPs said, would be the extent to which the proposals for franchising ensure small- and medium-sized operators are not prevented from entering the market.

The MPs added that while franchising is at the heart of the Bill, the committee is concerned that key elements relating to this provision are still not available for scrutiny, while other parts are only available in draft.

Its chair, Louise Ellman, said: “In this Bill, there are possibilities for local authorities to implement new forms of partnership or franchising based on what’s best for their communities.

“But committee scrutiny of the franchising process was hindered by a lack of information. We expect to see all relevant draft secondary legislation and guidance when the Bill is introduced into Parliament.

“There is a lot to welcome in this Bill. By giving local authorities new powers and offering practical measures such as improved passenger information and services, these proposals have the potential to bring about significant improvements for both passengers and communities.”

The committee noted that Advanced Quality Partnerships and Enhanced Partnership Schemes have the potential for delivering greater benefits by allowing local transport authorities and operators to work together more intensively.

However, they noted that there is a risk that Enhanced Partnership Schemes could entrench the position of dominant operators.

“We welcome the government’s commitment to take into account the specific aspects of the local bus market in developing the Enhanced Partnership Scheme voting mechanism,” said the MPs. “The government should publish further detail regarding the voting mechanism as soon as possible to allow the House of Commons to scrutinise the possible impact of Enhanced Partnership Schemes on competition.”

It was noted, however, that powers for local authorities to introduce integrated networks and ticketing, the use of open data to compare offers from providers, and the standard fitting of audio-visual equipment on buses are three proposals which would win support from bus passengers.

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