The amount of public money going into keeping bus services running during the Covid-19 pandemic has resurrected the possibility of local authorities looking at how they can bring them back into public hands, writes Richard Beecham.
It follows work done by West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) last year to look at the possibility of taking some of the region’s struggling bus services in-house in the future.
Since then, the region has obtained further powers to take on public transport through its devolution deal announced in the spring.
A document discussed by members of West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) this week claimed that, although further work was still needed, the authority would now have the ‘full range of powers’ to put a business case forward.
During the meeting, regional political leaders agreed the bus model was “broken”, and something had to be done to look at the kind of franchising currently being pursued in Manchester and Birmingham.
Leeds councillor Kim Groves, who also heads WYCA’s transport committee, said:
“Long term, even the industry is thinking about the things we discussed before, and is looking at what West Yorkshire transport looks like.
“In order to remain financially stable, operators will have to think about how transport is broadened out.
“There is a big piece of work on transport going on. We need to understand legally what we need to do more of and to make sure we are ready.”
Leeds City Council leader Judith Blake added:
“The feeling we have expressed on many occasions is that the bus model is broken and isn’t serving the needs of the travelling public. We are getting more and more experience of failing franchises on the rail network.
“This is an opportunity to look at the next steps, and we are looking at other authorities that are ahead of us. Coming out of legal contracts is a very difficult thing to do.”
The document stated: “Due to the uncertain nature of the current bus funding, it is important that all options to deliver bus services in West Yorkshire are explored. It is likely that public funding of bus services may need to increase during the COVID-19 recovery period.”
In 2019, the Combined Authority commissioned Ernst & Young to advise on
options around the possible sale of First’s bus operations.
The document added: “This commission was expanded within the funding allocation to set out the scope for exploring the options and for using the Bus Services Act and to advise on the likely implications of COVID-19 on the long term health of bus market in the region.
“This commission has provided the Combined Authority with a greater understanding of the technical requirements, skills and capacity needed to undertake the assessment for exploring options in the Bus Services Act.
“It has also provided a guide on the likely scale of funding needed and value to the region. Understanding the COVID-19 impact on this has also provided the Combined Authority with a greater understanding of the scenarios for likely change that could happen to the bus network.
“Becoming a Mayoral Combined Authority provides direct access to the full range of powers in the Bus Services Act subject to a business case. Further work is now needed to progress the options.”
The committee agreed to spend £150,000 to “support the development of financial, legal and technical options available to reform the provision of bus services