Welsh Government wants European model and ‘single guiding mind’

Lee Waters wants a “single guiding mind” for buses in Wales

By Rhodri Clark.

The Welsh Government is planning to omit partnerships from its future bus services legislation and to focus on franchising services across Wales.

Bus operators were dismayed to discover last month that a white paper, due in January, had been delayed. They said the uncertainty over Welsh bus legislation has stymied investment since 2017.

Previously, the Welsh Government prepared a bill which largely replicated the provisions made in English and Scottish bus legislation, including giving local authorities new options for partnerships with bus operators. The Covid-19 pandemic prevented the bill from being passed in the last Senedd term.

Deputy climate change minister Lee Waters told Passenger Transport last week, at the launch event for free bus travel in Newport, that the new white paper had been delayed because the government was now taking a different approach and wished to consult stakeholders before the white paper’s publication.

Previous partnership powers have not achieved the improvements we need to see

He said: “Previous partnership powers have not achieved the improvements we need to see.”

Greater Manchester authorities had still not reformed their bus network, four years after the legislation in England had come into force. “The industry is running rings around them,” said Waters.

The Welsh approach would resemble the European model and include a “single guiding mind”, he said. Bus networks would be overseen by a supervisory board, working with Transport for Wales, regional authorities and local authorities “to create a bus system that can be franchised at a regional level”.

The franchised system would be “greater than the sum of its parts” and enable coordination of ticketing. It would also align with the Welsh Government’s plans for reallocating road space to buses and its multi-modal approach to improving transport.

The fact that bus operators don’t feel they can invest is a symptom of a broken system. What we want to do is have a bus system in a more strategic form.

Asked whether he sympathised with the industry in its current situation, Waters said: “The fact that bus operators don’t feel they can invest is a symptom of a broken system. What we want to do is have a bus system in a more strategic form.”

He confirmed that the proposed bill would include powers for local authorities to establish new municipal bus companies. Officers at some rural authorities previously expressed interest in doing so. They included Pembrokeshire County Council, which has been operating scheduled bus services for five years after receiving no bids, or unaffordable bids, when it put some contracts out to tender. The council is now planning to acquire the assets of an independent bus operator, but officers have said the council’s bus operation will not replicate the commercial freedoms of a municipal bus company.

Wales had numerous municipal operators before deregulation in 1986 but only Cardiff Bus and Newport Transport survive.

The Welsh Government has budgeted £400,000 for all bus travel within Newport to be free of charge throughout March. The offer will apply to all bus operators, replicating the free travel in December which was funded by the city council. The latest initiative is designed to demonstrate to the public that the recommendations of the Burns Commission in November 2020 are being acted on.

The commission advised the government on ways to alleviate M4 congestion without building a new motorway around Newport. Waters said a huge amount of preparatory work was going on but it was hidden from public view. “I am confident that the free bus scheme I have announced today will not only provide a boost to the bus industry and local economy, but also encourage more people to make the switch to more sustainable travel,” he said.

The government launched two related consultations last week. One concerns proposals to introduce bus priority and cycle lanes on the A48 between Newport and Cardiff. The other concerns improved access to Severn Tunnel Junction station, including the possible diversion of the X74 and T7 bus services to serve the station.

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