Passenger Transport in Britain

- Some practical suggestions for a new way forward

By Andrew Capes BA DipT&CP MCIT


  1. The Problem
  2. The Existing Administrative Framework
  3. The Proposed Administrative Framework
  4. The Proposed Functions and Duties of the new Authorities
  5. Proposed Financial Arrangements
  6. Summary and Conclusions

1. The Problem

Passenger transport in Britain has suffered badly from being treated as a political and ideological football for the last fifteen years. It has been so fragmented by deregulation and privatisation, and has had such a difficult relationship with cash-starved and often unsympathetic local authorities, that its very survival into the 1990s can be seen as something of an achievement.
Despite all this, it should be recognised that many bus companies have managed to respond to the 'free' market with dramatic improvements in their financial and business performance, and new and supportive attitudes towards public transport are emerging everywhere in the wake of environmental crises brought about by mass car ownership.
The problem is to find a way of retaining these positive aspects whilst at the same time creating a coherent administrative framework within which regional passenger transport networks can flourish as a credible alternative to the private car. The big challenge is to see how this can be done without setting up new structures which turn out to be cumbersome, bureaucratic, extravagant or stultifying, and which might end up working against the interests of the public.
In the following sections I describe some proposals which I believe could achieve these ends. They would build on existing institutions and relationships, requiring very little new legislation and no new public money, but at the same time offering dramatic opportunities to reintroduce the concepts of transport integration and public accountability whose loss has been so damaging for the people of Britain.

Top of page

2. The Existing Administrative Framework

The present administrative framework in Britain is totally unsuited to giving public transport the universality, stability and quality of attention it deserves. Even PTEs no longer have any statutory responsibility to promote transport networks, although most of them do try their best with very limited powers; and the 70% of us who do not live in London or the metropolitan areas are without any statutory coordinating authorities at all, as the only duty local authorities have is to 'buy in' socially necessary bus services.
The previous administration's trust in the 'market' to sort out all the problems of public transport has been shown to have been badly misplaced, but the bus companies' freedom of operation has had some positive results and should not be curtailed or changed without very good reason.
The PTAs/PTEs are the only organisations with enough specialist ability and potential for political accountability to be able to take on a proper transport co-ordinating and integrating role. The 1968 Act which set them up has been drastically changed to take away most of their important powers, but some do remain, such as the ability to secure socially necessary bus and train services and to arrange for concessionary travel.
Some of their former powers, particularly the ability to precept for payment from constituent authorities and the requirement to plan for the future, need to be reinstated; but there is no need to try to restore their ownership of bus fleets, nor to give them back direct control over all fares. A summary of the powers and duties I think they ought to have is given in Section 4 below.

Top of page

3. The Proposed Administrative Framework

At present, people who live in metropolitan areas are assumed to have passenger transport needs which are quite different from those in the rest of Britain. Why this should be so has never been adequately explained, and the anomaly cannot be justified. The most urgent priority therefore is to extend the Passenger Transport Areas to cover the whole of Britain. This would of course change their character quite extensively, but there was a precedent for a PTE covering a large rural area in Strathclyde from 1975 to 1995.
By far the most practical way to do this would be for new transport areas to be created to coincide with the proposed new English regions, together with Scotland and Wales. Powers exist in the 1968 Act for the Secretary of State to define new Passenger Transport areas; if they are thought to be too large, they could (as happened in Strathclyde) be subdivided for administrative convenience.
In line with their geographical significance, the new Authorities should be re-named as Regional Transport Authorities and Executives. The Executives should be encouraged to retain and develop any current marketing identities such as Centro, Metro and Nexus, and the balance between political and executive power established by the 1968 Act should be restored.
In London, where a completely different statutory framework exists at present, some special arrangements will be needed; but changes there should be aimed at bringing London and the new Regional Authorities broadly in line with each other in terms of powers, duties and financing, though London may always need some special additional provisions.
This move could also offer the longer-term future prospect of expansion to absorb the full transport and planning powers of the present regional Government offices, with the advantage of supplying a ready-made regional dimension of political accountability throughout Britain.

Top of page

4. The Proposed Functions and Duties of the new Authorities

If the new Authorities and Executives are to function properly, they must have real powers and duties, including the power to precept revenue from constituent local authorities. This power must be legitimised by a proper political authority, as was done from 1968 until the rules were changed in 1986. The arrangement worked well during this time, and there seems to be no reason why it should not be reinstated in a suitably modified form.
In order to avoid duplication of responsibilities, all existing levels of involvement by local authorities in public transport should be transferred to the new Authorities (although local Agency agreements could certainly be encouraged, in much the same way as local agreements for road maintenance exist).
At the same time, the new Authorities should become the Registration Authorities for bus services, taking this function from the Traffic Commissioners, who would then be responsible only for the safety aspects of passenger transport operation. The Traffic Commissioners' role in handling registrations has rarely been more than that of a glorified (and often not very efficient) filing clerk, and there seems to be no sense in keeping this additional tier of bureaucracy once there is a Transport Authority covering every region of Britain.
The primary obligations of the newly constituted Regional Transport Authorities and Executives should therefore become:

Top of page

5. Proposed Financial Arrangements

There would be some changes to the way in which these proposals would be financed compared with present arrangements, but the overall net changes in public cost would be small. As has already been suggested, precepting powers should be restored to the new Authorities and this would be the main source of finance for planning, securing of services, education transport, concessionary fares and the costs of administration.
Capital expenditure would be financed by a mixture of public and private funds and loan authorisation, very much as at present, but without the crippling requirements for compulsory private finance which were imposed by the previous government.
The marketing and information function, as well as the costs of administering bus service registrations, could be financed by a levy on each service registration, perhaps charged on the basis of the peak vehicle requirement - for example, a charge of £50 for each peak vehicle needed on a registration could be made. This would be a simple, fair and readily verifiable method of charging for an important new set of requirements.
The additional costs of running the new expanded regional Authorities would also be partly offset by substantial savings in two main areas. First, local authorities would no longer need to maintain a separate public transport tendering and contracting role, nor would they need to have any direct involvement in paying for concessionary fares, education transport, information and bus stops and shelters; secondly, the transfer of the Traffic Commissioners' registration role would save a substantial amount of currently duplicated administration costs.

Top of page

6. Summary and Conclusions

This paper recommends that extensive reforms should be made to the way passenger transport is provided in Britain (the comments do not refer to Northern Ireland). They centre on a proposal to expand the present Passenger Transport Authorities and Executives to cover the whole of Britain by Regional areas, and to make extensive changes to their powers and duties, although the existing commercial freedom of privatised bus operators would be very largely retained.
The new Regional Transport Authorities would take over all the functions of the existing PTEs, together with some from local authorities and the Traffic Commissioners. They would become the Registration Authorities for their areas, and would have a number of new powers and duties in relation to public transport. Some of the money they would need would be provided by a levy on bus service registrations, but most would be raised by precept from the constituent local authorities.
Being Regional authorities with a substantial degree of political accountability, the new Authorities would have the potential to develop further into all-purpose regional authorities, taking over responsibility for the present regional government functions of roads and economic planning. This could well be a first step towards developing meaningful regional authorities without adding the much-feared additional tier to existing structures of local government.

© 1997 Andrew Capes BA DipT&CP MCIT

This text may not be reproduced without the express permission of the author.

Andrew Capes was formerly a Passenger Transport Coordinator with Durham County Council. He is now an independent Chartered Transport Consultant, based in Newcastle upon Tyne.

[Top of page]   [Miscellaneous Index]

Iain Logan's Electric Soup © I.W.Logan MCIT 1998. Last updated: 11 Jul 98 at 1400BST. HTML
3.2 Checked!