people sitting down inside vehicle
Photo by Mitchell Johnson on Unsplash

Strathclyde Partnership for Transport’s (SPT) recent decision to push on with its Recommendations for Future Delivery of the Regional Bus Network, inclusive of franchising was a significant step forward to improve bus services across Strathclyde.

In the absence of any national or regional bus strategy, the SPT report marks a key decision point in a workstream undertaken since November 2022 to develop a Strathclyde Regional Bus Strategy (SRBS). The need for a dedicated strategy for bus for the region had been identified through development of “A Call to Action: the Regional Transport Strategy for the West of Scotland 2023-2038” – approved by Scottish Ministers as a statutory document in July 2023.

Previous work to develop a SRBS “Case for Change” made a clear case that significant intervention was required to turn around the decline in bus in the west of Scotland, in order to ensure communities across the region were better connected, ensuring wider social policy goals and outcomes could be achieved.

Public consultation will begin at the start of April 2024 and will be open for 6 weeks on the recommendations based on the outcomes of an Options Development and Appraisal process, and are as follows:

Recommendation 1: Franchising – SPT should commence work on franchising, in line with the requirements of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019.

Recommendation 2: Bus Service Improvement Partnerships – SPT should progress with Bus Service Improvement Partnership (BSIP) arrangements to provide a firm basis for private and public sector commitments to arrest further passenger decline and improve the bus network over the medium term. 

Recommendation 3: Municipal Bus Company – As and when it may be required, SPT will consider developing business case(s) for small-scale municipal bus company(ies) aimed at providing socially necessary services in parts of the region where private operators are currently very limited.

Recommendation 4: Bus Partnership Fund – SPT should continue working with local authorities, Transport Scotland and bus operators to continue delivery through the Bus Partnership Fund.

Recommendation 5: Business As Usual and Voluntary Partnerships – Business As Usual and Voluntary Partnerships should be ruled out as means to deliver a better bus network as more radical intervention as required.

Following this, and analysis of responses to the consultation, work will continue to finalise the SRBS and develop a Strategic Business Case by Summer 2025, although it is worth highlighting that the development process to deliver franchising is expected to take 5-7 years, based on experiences elsewhere across the UK.

Key considerations for the future are obviously funding for any franchise model, and also the franchising process, as required by the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, which requires a three-person panel appointed by the Traffic Commissioner for Scotland to make the final decision on any franchise proposal. SPT has previously highlighted concerns about this, including the democratic accountability of the appointed panel. The third challenge is the fact that we are going forward with legally untested legislation.

It is important to note that 5 years after the 2019 Act, we are still awaiting guidance and regulations for any franchising from Transport Scotland and the Scottish Government but regardless of that SPT is breaking new ground and not waiting about.

SPT’s decision to consult on its bus reform proposals comes at a time when momentum is building across the UK in terms of greater public say in the operation of bus networks. London has obviously had the franchise system in place for many years, Manchester has recently launched its Bee Network franchise model, Wales is looking to a franchise model, and both Merseyside and West Yorkshire are doing the same.

Progress on the issue bus franchising needs action from the Scottish Government.  So far under pressure from Scottish Labour and Co-operative MSPs they have willed the ability to bring in bus franchising in 2019 Act and now they need to will the means to do it.  That requires significant financial support.

Along with colleagues across the Strathclyde area I am committed to delivering buses that are run in the interests of the people.