A new report by the Strathclyde Partnership for Transport has concluded that bus franchising is the only option to stem long-term network decline


BY Andrew Garnett

Strathclyde could become the first region in Scotland to franchise its bus network after Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) members approved plans for a consultation about the future of buses. It could shake up a bus network that takes in a broad swathe of the west of Scotland and includes Argyll and Bute, Glasgow, Inverclyde, Ayrshire and Lanarkshire.

In a report to partnership members, Bruce Kiloh, SPT’s head of policy and planning, said the organisation’s work in developing the new Regional Transport Strategy had reaffirmed significant concerns in terms of the efficiency, performance, affordability and overall sustainability of the bus network in Strathclyde.

“The development of the Strathclyde Regional Bus Strategy (SRBS) seeks to address these issues and aims to deliver a clear vision and strategy for the future of bus services in our region,” he added.

The SRBS appraised five options for the network: ‘business as usual’; ‘voluntary partnerships’; ‘bus service improvement partnerships’; ‘local service franchising’; and ‘municipal operation’.

SPT has concluded that the business as usual option did not perform well against the appraisal criteria as it did not deliver enhanced levels of provision or more affordable fares. On voluntary partnerships SPT concluded there is no evidence these have generated significant or sustained growth in patronage or that they are likely to “break the cycle of bus decline” within its area.

While the BSIP option “may have a positive role to play in delivering the objectives of the RTS” they would be “wholly dependent on early positive and ambitious engagement and agreement between partners”. “Any delay or reluctant behaviour by principal partners would fundamentally undermine the BSIP’s credibility and successful delivery,” added Kiloh. “On balance, the positives outweigh these potential negatives, but it would be remiss not to acknowledge the question marks which would ultimately remain.”

It gives us opportunities to build for growth, and deliver a network that is attractive, accessible, and affordable

SPT acknowledged the municipal operation option could, if started from scratch, entail strong on-road competition from incumbent operators. Kiloh warned that a new municipal would need to start from scratch or be based on the acquisition of an existing operator. Both of those options would be capital intensive. The appraisal concluded that the municipal option would also offer few significant benefits.

SPT’s appraisal process has therefore concluded that franchising offered the greatest potential to deliver the objectives of the RTS and would closely align with initiatives of national significance, such as the Clyde Metro project.

However, the appraisal identifies crucial caveats in relation to franchising. These are:

  • Affordability: Franchising to improve the network would require funding. SPT said without it bus services decline, necessitating significant investment and diversion of resources;
  • Feasibility and timescales: The experience of introducing bus franchising in Greater Manchester suggests that regional implentation of franchising in the Strathclyde region could take between five and seven years;
  • Competition: Design and development of the franchising process crucial for scope, scale, risk, finance and potential competition levels;
  • Challenging processes: The franchising process from the Transport (Scotland) Act is untested and there is potential for delays. Any franchising proposal in Scotland would face an independent review panel which must agree to the authority’s proposals before franchising can proceed; and
  • Risk sharing and uncertainty: The greater control offered by franchising also come with increased risk for the public sector, such as taking some, if not all, revenue risk and requiring it to react to uncertainties such as passenger demand.

Despite these concerns, Kiloh informed members SPT was of the view that franchising offered a way forward to achieving the aspirations of the RTS.

“Franchising is a proven model for delivery of local bus services across Europe and beyond and provides the greatest certainty of making significant improvement to the network to achieve passenger growth and better accessibility for all and deliver on wider public policy outcomes,” he said. “Therefore, SPT should initiate the franchise process in line with the requirements of the Transport (Scotland) Act.”

He said the cost of carrying the franchising process to the point of implementation is estimated to be around £15m and would take up to seven years to complete.

Kiloh continued: “SPT is in a position to initiate the franchise assessment process of its own accord at this stage but will require financial support from government to see through the processes to later stages, and ultimately in the implementation.”

However, SPT is also backing the Bus Service Improvement Partnership option in the interim. This would provide a firm basis for private and public sector commitments to arrest further passenger decline, stabilise and improve the bus network while SPT and its partners “work collectively” to establish the franchise model.

A competitive franchising model… has the potential to harness the best aspects of the public and private sector

SPT will now consult the public on its recommendations for a six week period during April and May 2024. The full appraisal report will be made available at the time of the consultation and the results of the public consultation and its impact on the SRBS will be reported to partnership members later in 2024.

Speaking after members approved Kiloh’s report and plans for the consultation, SPT chair Stephen Dornan said the proposals were a “bold and ambitious plan from SPT which sets a strong approach to tackle a declining bus market”.

The SNP Glasgow councillor continued: “It gives us opportunities to build for growth, and deliver a network that is attractive, accessible, and affordable to both passengers in our communities who rely on the bus to get around and those who we need to get ‘onboard’ by offering an attractive alternative to the private car.”

However, Dornan warned that any franchising option will take time and investment to establish and the BSIP option offers the opportunity to arrest decline in the short to medium term “while we work to establish the world-class local bus franchise model the people of the West of Scotland deserve”.

He continued: “In order to progress any of these options, we need investment from the Scottish Government which now has to step up with real funding and a commitment to support public transport, particularly bus which for too long has been forgotten and now requires urgent action.”

SPT’s proposals appear to have won cross-party consensus. SPT vice-chair Alan Moir, a Labour councillor for East Dunbartonshire said the preferred options had the potential to “revolutionise local bus services in the west of Scotland to the clear benefit of bus passengers and local communities”.

Meanwhile, fellow vice-chair David Wilson, a Scottish Conservative and Unionist councillor for Inverclyde, said there was a clear need for a long-term plan for buses in the region.

“Delivery of a competitive franchising model, as proposed, has the potential to harness the best aspects of the public and private sector collaboration in delivery of local bus services,” he added.

Mixed feedback on SPT’s franchise plan

Reaction to the news of SPT’s plans for bus franchising in the Strathclyde region was mixed.

The Centre for Cities think tank welcomed the news, noting that compared to other cities its size in Europe, Glasgow’s economy underperforms by approximately £7bn. “A better functioning, integrated public transport network that helps connect people to jobs and education is a sure way to get the economy firing,” said chief executive Andrew Carter.

However, one local bus operator offered a more robust response to the proposals. McGill’s chief executive Ralph Roberts claimed franchising was “effectively confiscation of a business that has been built in good faith over many years with investors’ funds and it raises a host of legal implications, including issues under Article One of the European Convention on Human Rights”.

Roberts continued: “It goes against every sense of natural justice and we would take this to every court in the land and beyond. Franchising can be introduced in a different way and our opposition to it will be absolute until the threat of theft of a private business is lifted.”

He also said local authorities had failed to implement bus priority measures that would free services from the constraints imposed by ever increasing traffic congestion.

“Remove buses from congestion and take business confiscation off the table,” Roberts added. “These two simple steps will build trust and show that this is about bus users rather than a power trip for politicians and quangos, most of whom never set foot on a bus.”

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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