Bus Services Bill [Lords]

Part of Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:19 pm on 1st March 2017.

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Photo of Huw Merriman Huw Merriman Conservative, Bexhill and Battle 5:19 pm, 1st March 2017

I agree. There is some power in the argument for more unitary authorities and for legislative incentives to encourage authorities to get together to form a unitary authority. In a way, the Bill may provide that incentive, because I note that Cornwall Council has automatic franchising powers should it wish to use them, but it does not have a directly elected mayor because it is a unitary authority. That may be an incentive for other local authorities to combine. In what is a bit of a sword of Damocles argument, Cornwall is not actually going to go down the franchising route, but we heard evidence from Cornwall Council and the feeling was that just having that power perhaps got the council a better deal through a partnership and that it is happy to persevere for the time being.

While the Bill would allow the Secretary of State to grant franchising powers to authorities that are not mayoral combined authorities, I note that four factors must be met before that can occur. Cornwall might say that it could meet them, but I can understand the concern that the power will go no further than authorities that have an elected mayor. The Lords sought to widen franchising to all authorities that want it, but I note that no quality contract schemes have been put in place since 2000. Some areas have attempted to do so but have struggled—Tyne and Wear is a recent example—but the very fact that none have made it leads me to suggest that we are in danger of asking for wider franchising powers for authorities that would not want to take them up. Franchising can also be high risk for local transport authorities due to negotiating powers and back-office requirements. I certainly hope that we do not end up with the bigger players taking advantage of better lawyers and accountants to give them better terms, with town halls suffering as a result.

Turning to municipals, I note that proposed new section 123O under clause 4 states that LTAs can be an operator of last resort when a service provider ceases to deliver a service for the remainder of its contract. In that sense, the direction of travel is to allow LTAs to step in, yet the Bill prohibits municipals at the same time. Part of me feels that, when we consider devolution and localism, a closer look at what municipals can do would be welcome. That said, I am conscious that local authorities should be enablers, rather than providers, and that municipals should perhaps be more of a last resort.