Does National Bus Strategy for England encourage franchising?

Does the National Bus Strategy for England encourage franchising?

There was great debate in our virtual office following publication of the National Bus Strategy (NBS) for England, or Bus Back Better to give it its official title. I felt that it actually encourages franchising, while my colleagues all seem to feel that it is designed to put people off franchising by having to have an Enhanced Partnership (EP) in place first.

If the latter is true, it was undermined soon after by Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham announcing that he will proceed with franchising there. This prompted a flurry of announcements from current and potential Metro Mayors that they too would pursue ‘Manchester style’ franchising – some showing their lack of understanding of the issue in the process.

Why invest when franchising is part of National Bus Strategy?

This makes EP negotiations harder in those locations. Why would a bus company commit to large investment in resources if in five years’ time, the partnership will be replaced by a franchise?

It also got me thinking if the NBS was too late. Would COVID-19 road layout changes have been as drastic and anti-bus in places if the NBS had been published earlier? The closure of, and diversion of buses away from, convenient central roads such as Pinstone Street in Sheffield does not exactly meet the encouraging bus travel criteria of the NBS.

Thought required from LAs when making highway changes

Local to myself, a new Tesco store and the creation of a cycle superhighway by the County Council have caused dramatic changes to a busy bus stop, which is currently served by up to 10 departures per hour.

There is room to have put in some level of bus priority, especially on the Preston-bound side where adjustment of the cycle superhighway could have allowed buses to exit the layby directly into the remaining dual-carriageway section, rather than having to wait for a gap in the traffic from two sets of traffic lights. One hopes that this type of highway adjustment will not happen in an EP.

NBS for England should fit better with other funding streams

Finally, the NBS and subsequent requirements do not fit in the way they should with the challenge funding of Rural Mobility, Levelling up and Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas. Ideally, the process for those funds should have been in between creation of a draft Bus Service Improvement Plan/EP Plan (thus knowing which aspirations need funding), and a final version that would adjust the draft based on actual funding provided.

It is difficult to know what the NBS would have looked like without the COVID-19 pandemic. The ability to use recovery funding as leverage to get what was wanted would not have been there in 2018. However, publishing the Strategy so long after the 2017 Bus Services Act, and indeed making part of the Act null and void, feels like putting the horse behind the cart.