The overriding aim of the Buses Bill is to increase bus passenger numbers, transport minister Andrew Jones told over 300 delegates at yesterday's Transport Times UK Bus Summit 2016.
Mr Jones confirmed that the Bill, due to be introduced to Parliament in the near future, will give local areas the ability to introduce franchising, and well as the option of "enhanced partnerships" with bus operators. In an unexpected development he announced that operators will also be required to open up their data on routes, fares and times.
Mr Jones' speech spelt out in detail for the first time what the bill will contain. He stressed it was an "enabling" bill which sought not to impose solutions but to give local authorities more choices in how to improve bus services "in the interest of their residents and, I believe, in the long-term interest of the bus industry too".
The government was "plainly on the side of free enterprise" and there was "much about today's deregulated bus industry that works well". But there was still room for improvement, Mr Jones said.
"Passengers right across the country want Oyster-style ticketing, better access to information about timetables, better information on fares before they travel, and real-time data about when the bus is going to arrive at their stop," he said. In addition bus routes should "reflect and support economic development", such as new housing and business parks.
Of the current choices for areas seeking improvements, voluntary partnerships "are only as good as the personal relationships between those involved".
Statutory quality partnerships, he said, force local authorities to spend public money on new infrastructure, "even when everyone agrees it isn't needed".
And the quality contract process for franchising "has proved more time-consuming, costly and challenging than anybody could ever have imagined".
New partnership arrangements introduced by the bill will remove the requirement for new infrastructure. Enhanced partnerships will allow local authorities and bus operators to agree their own standards for all services in their area. These could focus on "frequency and reliability along a particular route or corridor, setting emissions standards to improve local air quality, or introducing common branding, marketing and ticketing rules over a wider geographical area".
This would build on the strengths of existing partnership arrangements while addressing their weaknesses, the minister said, including preventing a small minority of operators from blocking improvements.
The Bill would honour the Government's devolution deal commitments to give local authorities new powers to franchise bus services in their areas. Mr Jones said: "I want to keep the good parts of the quality contract scheme process, which at least forces people to think things through properly, but I want to lose the parts which don't work, such as the excessive cost, the bureaucracy and the second-guessing."
He added that the decision to take up those powers will for local areas to make – removing the need for proposals to be considered by an independent quality contracts scheme board, which proved aan insurmountable obstacle in the case of the quality contract proposals introduced by the North East Combined Authority.
But local areas would need clear arrangements for ensuring the powers are used accountably, and a system that does not disadvantage bus services that cross local authority boundaries, Mr Jones said. "This will be an important decision for local areas to make, and it must be made on the basis of solid information," he said.
Given concerns among operators about franchising, Mr Jones was at pains to stress what the Bill would not do. It would not impose any particular arrangement. It would be acceptable to keep the status quo if it was working satisfactorily.
It would not give local authorities the power to take bus companies' assets. And it would leave oversight of anti-competitive behaviour with the Competition and Markets Authority.
The new proposal on open data would address passenger's need for better information. All operators will be required to make information about routes, fares and times open and accessible, enabling independent app makers to develop products that passengers can use to plan their journeys, including real-time arrival data.
Speaking to Transport Times Mr Jones spoke of this enthusiasm for this measure and that he wanted to move quickly on this. "Put the data out there and see what happens. I think it will be a huge benefit.
"I think it's a very positive thing, if you give customers information so they're more in control of their decision-making process, if you remove barriers to making a purchase, perhaps through smart ticketing, and remove concerns about when their bus will be coming, then I think that will encourage bus use."
Asked if he was confident the bus operators' concerns about franchising could be overcome, he said: "We've been talking to them and I hope we've been able to provide some reassurance – particularly the point that oversight won't change." He hoped the government could continue to work towards "nullifying" the concerns. "I hope that people realise from the dialogue we've been having where we're coming from with this bill.
Of the quality contract board procedure he said "It just hasn't worked. It's been cumbersome, costly and the fact that no-one has managed to get over the line suggests there are significant problems with it."