Creating Enhanced Partnerships in Local Transport
So much to do… So little time…
With just the exceptions of London and Greater Manchester (these areas having bus franchising and planned franchising arrangements respectively) transport authorities throughout England are wrestling with the expectations of the Department of Transport that statutory partnership schemes are in place by 31 March 2022. But is this too big an ask? Freeths local transport expert Frank Suttie takes a look at what lies ahead.
When the government in its Bus Back Better policy, published earlier this year, signalled a willingness to underwrite 3 billion pounds of public sector investment much of it covering clean energy vehicle procurements and related infrastructure, the funding offer came with a significant string attached – that transport authorities and their public service operators sign up to Enhanced Partnerships.
Saying no to this expectation would mean no access to the money pot and even existing COVID related funding might cease. So it’s no surprise that every single council affected has issued a notice of intent to create a partnership of this kind. We explained what it takes to develop an Enhanced Partnership in a previous briefing note to be found here.
The challenge set, involves authorities developing and publishing (following consultation) overarching plans and at least one scheme demonstrating how they envision their local bus networks going forward in ways that are calculated to increase patronage and, ideally, provide solutions to the connectivity problems for rural as well as urban areas. The plans will set expectations both in terms of what the authority itself will do but also what it expects of operators – and these expectations need to be carefully calculated as there are objection rights available to operators under the legislation that applies.
A rather perplexing aspect is the anticipated timescale for the creation of partnerships. Partnership Plans are to be prepared reflecting bus service improvement strategies that the authorities are currently developing and which must be submitted to the Department for Transport by October 31st. And then it’s a case of moving on to finalise the partnership plan and at least one scheme covering all or part of the authority’s area. These will need to be in effect by the end of next March.
We use the word perplexing advisedly. The legislation that guides authorities to the point of being able to make a partnership plan and scheme requires careful navigation of the process and, above all else, time to consult on plans and initiatives, consider the outcome of the consultation and be sure when moving on that tangible benefits will come from the exercise.
There will also be in many cases the need to consult with other authorities. Indeed, a partnership can involve more than one authority collaborating with another – for example a county council and a unitary authority. Decision making then needs to be carefully co-ordinated. And when consideration is given to measures that tip the balance of advantage in favour of bus from other travel options – for example by increasing car parking charges, the district councils within the county then become involved and may have their own agenda to be worked through so as to reach mutual agreement.
The draft plan and scheme will also have been subject to close scrutiny by operators – some large, forming part of the “big five” bus groups but many others operating on a much smaller scale for whom any access to funding will be highly valued but where the need to come to terms with sophisticated legal documents and the expectations to be made of them from these in terms of how they operate their services in the future risk objections being raised. Objections will need to be taken seriously and responded to – which may in turn lead to another round of consultations with the operators.
When consideration of the decision making processes are then factored in (and it may be those of the districts as well if they are affected) the expectation that there can be a well developed plan and scheme in place by the end of March is likely to come into question.
There are two particular downsides that we think are particularly important to be clear about at this time:
- Working to a constrained timescale must in many cases lead to more ambitious potential outcomes for partnerships to be put to one side for fear of difficulties arising during consultation. Expectations such as ensuring the acceptance of tickets on services regardless of who the operator is, more co-ordination of service timetables and more options to combine bus and rail travel should be key wins to be achieved. But these will take time to put in place as well as the means for small operators to participate in technology driven solutions.
- The requirement that authorities set dates by which particular local transport service improvements (more informative service information at bus stops, improvements at bus stations and so on) may again deter authorities from making valuable commitments – if a date committed to in a scheme document is likely to be missed it can be extended but only by 12 months.
A number of bus partnerships have been created in the past applying previous legislation. Local authorities will be keen to access the expertise of those who have overseen their successful development and who can help the achievement of the deadline by contributing to the programming of work and the maximisation of what is feasible in the timescale involved.
If you are involved in the development of Enhanced Partnerships or keen to learn more, please see [here] your invitation to the Landor Public Transport Recovery Event – Enhanced Partnership or Franchise – what’s your next destination? Sponsored by Freeths and taking place on Thursday 30th September.
Date: Thursday 30th September
Time: 2pm – 3pm
The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.
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