Are the Prime Minister’s recent comments regarding devolution powers a cause for concern?
The Prime Minister has recently said that he wants to give the Mayors outside of London the same devolution powers enjoyed by the Mayor of London. As ever, the devil will be in the detail and I will examine the announcement closely when it comes, but my fear is that this may not be great news for the bus industry.
I say that because any further devolution of powers may give these Mayors greater encouragement to pursue a franchise option for the provision of local bus services.
That feels to me like a logical conclusion to draw and would of course be consistent with the remarks made by Boris Johnson in his first speech as Prime Minister in Manchester, which I have commented on previously. These feel to me like worrying times for the bus industry.
The silver lining for the bus industry is that I seriously question whether the Combined Authorities have the money to take on franchising powers – although to be fair that does not seem to be deterring Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester.
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has seen the Department for Transport (DfT) withdraw its grant to Transport for London (TfL), one reason why its budget is under such strain – but not the only one, of course.
So the extent to which any greater devolution of powers to Mayors outside of London will be attractive will surely be dependent on the level of grant aid that the DfT provides or continues to provide.
If they are to be treated in the same way as Sadiq Khan and TfL have been treated, then one might think that the Combined Authorities at least would see grant support dwindle over time and that would make greater devolution of powers somewhat less attractive, I suggest.
Of course, TfL is in a much stronger position to raise its own revenues to make up the shortfall in DfT funding, so I concede I’m not really comparing like for like. But it’s an issue worth reflecting on, and it’s why the devil will be in the detail when this devolution announcement comes.
It’s perfectly possible that before then we will be in general election territory. And that’s another danger for the bus industry because I can see Mr Johnson campaigning on a strong ticket of devolution to the regional Mayors (among many other matters, of course).
If one of the objectives of the industry’s recently published bus strategy was to try and head off the need for franchising – because the industry was committing to all sorts of fine things that demonstrated its commitment to improved customer service through investment and the like – then I fear that objective may get swept away by the broader political agenda to buy votes in the north by a strong commitment to greater devolution, and I can see Mr Johnson repeating his comments about franchising in that Manchester speech. Dangerous times indeed.