Enhanced Partnerships for local bus services – the new DfT Timetable. So what happens next?
The Department for Transport announced, earlier this month, a change in its position over the timetable that local transport authorities have been working to in creating a new form of partnership with bus operators providing passenger services in their area.
All authorities with transport functions across the country (with the exception of franchise pursuing Greater Manchester) had been tasked to have their partnerships in place by 1 April for fear of losing critically required funding and missing out on new funding opportunities. Now they have the opportunity to wait and see what funding the department proposes to provide in a decision that the department will announce in the next few weeks. So what does this mean for those authorities that are quite far down the road in creating their partnerships. Read on to discover our views on the situation that now exists.
There can be little doubt that authorities were placed in a dilemma by the department’s original programme. The partnerships to be formed require contributions from all parties. From bus operators, authorities can look to secure improvements in punctuality and timetable co-ordination, easier to understand ticketing arrangements, commitment to market their services in conjunction with other operators and more environmentally friendly buses.
In return, local authorities are expected to commit to better facilities to make travel by bus a genuinely attractive option – winning for operators, increased patronage and less journeys taken by car as a consequence. This might be through more bus lanes, changes in traffic priorities and financial support to encourage younger people to travel by bus.
But these local authority commitments require expenditure – money that authorities simply do not currently have available. As the detail of early proposals emerged, it became clear that, whilst ambitious partnerships may very well be created through this initiative, the reality as to what can be achieved really does have to await an announcement from the department as to how it will disburse an initial budget of £1.4bn to become available over the next three years.
What is the department now proposing?
In a letter sent to all authorities with transport functions by the deputy director, Bus Recovery and Reform, Local Transport, earlier this month, a number of changes were signalled. The department set out a timetable as follows:
Indicative funding decisions to be notified to authorities by February 2022;
Draft Enhanced Partnership Plan and Scheme documents to be provided by the authority to the department by the end of April; and
In an announcement due later, a final date for Enhanced Partnerships to be in place.
So, what is the Department’s intention?
This seems quite clear and that is to give authorities the benefit of understanding what funding they may receive, to assess that and determine how to utilise the funding to the advantage of local bus services. Authorities that have not yet commenced the Operator Objection period for their partnership are being given the option to pause the process and await the funding decision. A period will then be available to further develop, in particular, the partnership Scheme or Schemes that are proposed under which the transport improvements expected will be delivered. However when taking into account the requirements for reporting to members and securing executive board or mayoral approval to the finalised scheme by the original date of 1 April 2022 there will be few if any authorities that have not yet embarked on later stages of the process.
What should authorities do if the operator objection period has commenced or been completed?
From early examples we are seeing, authorities in this position are pressing on to the original timetable and expect to “make” their Plan and first Scheme by the end of April. This is most likely the sensible approach – in following any statutory procedure (which this is) it is important to stay within the procedures provided for in the legislation. It is far from clear whether an authority could move back just one square on the board (and restart the operator objection procedure) as opposed to going back to square one.
Those already out to public consultation would have some explaining to do to their communities at a time when valuable information is being captured through the consultation as to the likely public response to the bus improvement proposed.
How should Authorities who implement their partnerships in April respond to funding announcements?
As the department regularly emphasises EP Schemes (which are the focus for securing outcomes from investment are flexible and should have a bespoke voting scheme, enabling the Scheme to be varied to incorporate proposals for new investment and how bus operators are expected to respond to that in order to ensure valuable outcomes from the investment.
In addition, the fact the further EP Schemes can be made in the future, should not be overlooked. Where funding is to be utilised to target services on a given bus corridor it is likely to be more appropriate to create a new Scheme with involvement in developing only those operators affected.
Freeths is here to help!
Advice on the current status of your partnership and how to navigate the future is available to authorities and operators from Freeths. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with the key contacts in this briefing.
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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