Although the focus of the Buses Bill is closely linked to the proposed Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill and chancellor George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’, the establishment of combined authorities is not necessarily restricted to major cities. A House of Commons library research document published earlier this year points to discussions already taking place about proposed combined authorities in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Tees Valley and Birmingham/Black Country, and Bristol mayor George Ferguson is urging councils in his region to work together to develop a proposal to take advantage of favourable government funding for combined authorities.
In response, First Bus has re-iterated its belief in partnerships, whilst pointing out that it is yet to see details of the proposed Bill. “We have seen success in our partnership approach with local authorities, which has delivered tangible benefits to passengers, and volume growth, which both operators and councils want to see,” says a First Bus spokesperson. “We have demonstrated that the current model works and that operators can grow markets in city regions, despite government cuts.
"We believe partnerships have much more yet to deliver and can be formed to meet the objectives of cities as they look to buses to strongly support their agendas."
The Campaign for Better Transport has welcomed the proposed Buses Bill, although it is calling on the government to ensure that rural areas are not overlooked.
"London-style devolved transport powers could bring the same kinds of service improvements from which that city has benefited to long-neglected cities in the North of England and elsewhere,” says CBT chief executive Stephen Joseph. “However, it is important that transport devolution is not just confined to the big cities but spreads across the country bringing together a better, integrated transport network, crucially in rural areas."
Although the bus industry will need to engage positively with the process, it is unlikely to welcome the fact that a separate Buses Bill will inevitably lead to a phalanx of lobbyists seeking to use the opportunity to bolt-on their proposals to the legislation. Indeed the charity Guide Dogs has immediately cited the Buses Bill as a valuable opportunity for authorities to make sure all new buses are safe and accessible for people with sight loss. "Guide Dogs believes that audio visual technology is a crucial piece of equipment which must be included as part of all new buses,” says Guide Dogs campaigns manager James White. “We want everyone who experiences sight loss to be able to live their lives the way they choose, and feel confident, independent and supported in the world. Talking Buses would not only help passengers with sight loss enjoy a confident and worry-free journey but would help tourists and people on business who were new to the area to know where they were on the bus journey. It's a simple step which benefits many, and would also support a thriving local bus market."
First UK Bus managing director Giles Fearnley admitted to Bus and Coach Professional that a separate Buses Bill was a surprise but that the “devil will be in the detail”. He speculated that the progress of the Bill may need to be quite rapid if it is to become law alongside the main devolution proposals and it might therefore be quite a brief document. He reiterated First’s belief in partnership agreements which he said could help deliver benefits to towns and cities “irrespective of the devolution debate”.