Our man in Westminster is hearing that the whole issue of elected Mayors may be under review. If so, it throws the whole concept of devolution into reverse. More importantly for the bus industry, it drives a coach and horses through the whole bus franchising policy
Last week I said that Theresa May’s administration is more sceptical about the merits of devolution that David Cameron’s. Now I’m hearing that the whole issue of elected Mayors may be under review.
Elected mayors was the cornerstone of the various devolution deals negotiated between George Osborne and various Combined Authorities, although most authorities accepted the concept of elected mayors with considerable reluctance.
If this review is underway, then it surely throws the whole concept of devolution into reverse. More importantly for the bus industry, it drives a coach and horses through the whole bus franchising policy.
The Bus Services Bill gives authorities with elected mayors the right to proceed down a franchising route without the prior consent of the Secretary of State.
But if the concept of elected mayors is scrapped, and all authorities have to seek ministerial approval to proceed with a franchise, you have to ask: what’s the point of the Bill? You might as well stick with the current Quality Contract regime.
Of course, the Bill isn’t only about franchising – it makes a range of provisions about Enhanced Quality Partnership and so on. But franchising was the central reason for the Bill. And with a new Secretary of State at the helm who is clearly a devolution sceptic and much more inclined to defend, even trumpet, the benefits of deregulation, I can’t see many authorities without an elected mayor getting his consent to franchising anyway.
This is all becoming a bit messy. Most authorities that have negotiated devolution deals with elected mayors are preparing to hold mayoral elections next May, and while they may have accepted the imposition of elected mayors with reluctance, they did so in return for the benefits of the devolution deals.
If the new government decides it doesn’t like elected mayors, what implications does this have for the devolution deals? The deals have been agreed. They’ve got George Osborne’s signature on them. So I’m struggling to work out how the government can now withdraw its support for elected mayors without a serious unravelling of the devolution deals that have been agreed. That is surely a dangerous political path. I wonder what George Osborne makes of it all?
For the average bus passenger this is irrelevant. Survey after survey shows that the one thing passengers care about most is punctuality. While they attach value to other things such as smartcards and so on, it’s punctuality that’s their number one priority.
So while politicians debate the shape and size of bus policy – regulation versus deregulation, franchising, Enhanced Quality Partnerships – the bemused bus passenger simply wants their bus to run on time.
Worse, the primary cause of late running – congestion – is completely ignored in the policy debates about buses. Trawl all the debates on the Transport Acts 2000 and 2008, scour the debates in the Lords on the current Bill, and the word “congestion” barely gets a look in.
Whether the problem of congestion is ever capable of being resolved until politicians pluck up the courage to introduce a national road pricing scheme for our strategic road network, towns and cities, is a good question.
We aren’t addressing the fundamental cause of the problem. Traffic congestion doesn’t distinguish between a regulated bus and an unregulated one.
I have Chris Grayling down as an individual who is more robust and dynamic than most Transport Secretaries. I wonder if he might finally be the one to bite the road-pricing bullet?