Ministers are “determined” to introduce legislation that will enable bus franchising in Wales, Deputy Minister for Climate Change Lee Waters MS told the Senedd on 23 June when responding to a backbench motion.
It is not yet clear how aggressively any reregulation of buses in Wales will be pursued, but to accompany the legislation, the Welsh Government is drawing up a strategy for buses, to be published in the autumn. It will contain more detail of future direction and policy.
In an indication that franchising may not dominate the service delivery framework that will be set out in the bus strategy, Mr Waters acknowledges the enhanced dialogue and relationships that have been established between the Welsh Government and operators during the pandemic.
That “puts us in a far better position to realise the ambition that we will be setting out later this year in our bus strategy,” he says, although a hint of the favoured direction was given when he noted that public transport “outside of London… rarely works, because it is not regulated.”
Bus franchising in Wales comments follow Transport Strategy
An expectation that the Welsh Government would prepare a bus strategy came from the publication earlier this year of Llwybr Newydd: The Wales Transport Strategy 2021 (link). It details a set of five-year priorities, among which is giving the public sector more control over buses. It also commits to partnership.
In his response to the backbench debate, Mr Waters made some other encouraging comments about how the Welsh Government will approach buses. He notes that the mode has been “neglected” by politicians previously, suggesting that there is now a recognition that more public money needs to be invested in it.
Mr Waters adds that there is “a social justice argument” to improving bus services and that they must be made attractive.
“Until we do that, we will not transform the way buses work in the way we all want to see, and need to see, if we are going to tackle climate change.”
While that will mandate public investment, “it is also going to require tough political choices here and in local government. It’s going to require local authorities (LAs) being willing to reallocate road space away from cars towards shared public transport.”
Although Mr Waters did not specifically state that Transport for Wales (TfW) will gain greater oversight of bus services, he notes that “a lot of dialogue” has taken place with parties that include TfW, LAs and the regional Corporate Joint Committees that are being created. More detail on that will be contained within the bus strategy. It is expected that TfW will see its involvement with buses expand.
Policy for zero-emission transition in Wales ‘critical’, says CPT Cymru
Even before Mr Waters’ response to the backbench debate, the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) Cymru was expecting TfW’s influence on buses in Wales to grow. Director Josh Miles has welcomed news of the bus strategy, which he likens to the already-published National Bus Strategy for England. He says that such a document forms one of CPT Cymru’s “key asks” of the Welsh Government.
Mr Miles adds that a major policy point that must be addressed by the strategy is the transition to zero-emission. That is “an absolutely critical issue,” particularly as Wales has been excluded from the Department for Transport (DfT) Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas scheme.
Previously, DfT provided some money to part-fund zero-emission buses in Wales and hence there is now a gap that CPT Cymru wants to see filled quickly.
“I expect zero-emission to be part of the strategy when it is published, and we will be pushing that heavily,” says Mr Miles.
He adds that the industry also needs clarity on the Welsh Government’s target for all buses to be zero-emission by 2028; since it was first announced, it has led to caution around investment in new diesel vehicles.
“We have called on the Welsh Government to establish a forum to work through this issue so that politicians and the industry can establish what is practical, what is realistic, how it is funded and how we manage the transition together.”
Related to the transition to zero-emission in bus fleets is the establishment of emission control zones in Wales. While the country is behind England and Scotland in its pursuit of those, the Welsh Government is committed to introducing a Clean Air Act. “We should expect urban areas in Wales to be subject to those zones in future,” adds Mr Miles.