Inclusion and access should be at the heart of the new Bus Services Bill

A bus in Manchester. Image: Divy/Wikimedia Commons.

Thirty years ago, the British government deregulated the bus market outside London. The move meant the needs of passengers were to be met largely by the market, with some subsidy from local government to incentivise bus companies to meet a greater range of needs through the provision of “socially necessary services”. 

It was known even then this would leave gaps in provision and un-met needs – needs that continue to grow as commercial and subsidised services are withdrawn in the face of cuts to local public spending. But the act of Parliament which deregulated the bus market did at least provide the legal framework for local communities to come together and form their own not-for-profit transport solutions: community transport. 

Too often we still see people excluded from the mainstream bus network due to their rural location, disability, or simply the time at which they want to travel. Now a new Bus Services Bill, which will provide a once in a generation opportunity to create a fundamental shift towards better local transport networks across England, is working its way through Parliament. If we are to develop a bus network that allows people to embrace their full social and economic potential, then we must keep a relentless focus on accessibility in that bill.

To achieve this, it is vital to question the purpose of our bus network, and the motives that fuel its development. In a deregulated market there is not a sufficient framework to enable non-profitable services to prosper. 

This may in part be addressed through the introduction of Enhanced Quality Partnerships in the Bill. These partnerships will enable local authorities, community groups and bus operators to agree standards on a range of measures – fares, bus times, frequency of service, vehicle standards and ticketing products. Passengers should be at the forefront of consultations when introducing new partnerships and deciding which measures to adopt.


What we would like to see is a greater narrative about the importance of accessibility to the bus network. To achieve this, the Bill should advance a measure of accessibility to routes as a key criterion to judging the success of new partnerships between local authorities, communities, and bus networks. 

Of course, one way of increasing the coverage of bus services is by network design through franchising. On its own, franchising might well deliver little that can’t be provided through partnership agreements. But if franchising schemes could provide a framework that encourages collaboration between the not-for-profit and commercial sector from the outset, it becomes possible to imagine a situation where the different strengths of the sector are used to their full potential, to ensure we have a bus network that strives to works collaboratively.

Finally, if we put access as the key measure of success in the Bus Services Bill, this means information also needs to be of a high quality. If we are to have an increase in the accessibility of routes, data needs to be open, to enable greater information and planning of services to enhance our networks and improve travel confidence.

The Bus Services Bill may be our best chance to radically reimagine the way we increase access to the bus network, and in turn improve social and economic opportunities through better transport links. It will be Parliament that decide the bill’s direction – and imaginative local authorities who will decide its impact.

James Coe is policy and public affairs executive at the Community Transport Association, which support the providers of voluntary transport through the UK to deliver inclusive and accessible services. He can be contacted @CTAUK1 and blogs here.

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As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.


The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.