Cameron springs Cornish surprise with powers for bus franchising

Cameron springs Cornish surprise with powers for bus franchising

The government’s approval for Cornwall to been given bus franchising powers has sent further shock waves across the commercial bus industry, which to date had been hoping to limit the franchising model to Manchester. Once again with a major transport policy announcement, the Department for Transport played a supporting role with the prime minister David Cameron launching a new devolution deal which will make Cornwall the first rural authority to get bus franchising powers.

Under the deal announced by the prime minister, Cornwall will introduce bus franchising in 2018, subject to local consultation. The deal is described as ‘fiscally neutral’, meaning there is no extra money, although the county will control budgets that are currently allocated by central government, and the council stresses that it still has to make overall savings of £196million over the next four years.

Cornwall council describes the current bus network in the county as “unstable” and claims that a London-style tendered model is required in order to deliver passenger growth and an integrated public transport network. The Cornwall Devolution Deal document states: “Since 2010, 24 out of 163 bus services in Cornwall have been withdrawn, while bus passenger numbers have declined by around 10 per cent in the last three years. Those who do not use buses report that this is because services are not frequent enough, fares are expensive and journey times are often too slow.”

The council aims to introduce integrated smart ticketing with combined, cash-less travel between bus, rail and ferry services.

The devolution deal agreed with government is based on a broader policy document, Case for Cornwall, which it has been preparing for some time but was hurriedly adopted by the council just days before the prime minister’s visit. 

“We were early in recognising the growing momentum of the national agenda for devolving powers from Westminster and, by creating a Case for Cornwall which was strong and realistic, we have had a positive response from the government” says council leader John Pollard. “Cornwall is, therefore, the first rural authority in the country to be given a devolution deal. This gives Cornwall greater powers over public sector funding.”

The Case for Cornwall contains some details on the proposed system of bus franchising, including support for a gross contract model where the council takes all the revenue risks and a unified branding across the bus network. The council stresses that it wants to enable opportunities for small operators to bid for contracts and notes that there may be opposition from established major operators which could create difficulties in the run-up to franchising.

The council’s initial estimates claim that the subsidy costs for the Cornwall bus network range between £60 and £100million. It asserts that existing subsidy budgets would be sufficient for the lower end of this range, although it acknowledges that some “rationalisation” of the network may be needed. However, it aims to increase bus patronage to 13 million passengers by 2023, claiming that the existing deregulated system would mean less than 9.5 million passengers by 2018. It says that its modelling shows that a ‘do nothing’ approach means that there is unlikely to be a viable bus network in Cornwall by 2030.

There is no mention of the ‘c-word’ however. Compensation to private operators who have built their business through the deregulated system for nearly 30 years will simply lose the ability to operate unless they win a franchise under the new model.

CPT president Bill Hiron complained earlier in the year that the move to franchising means that the government was proposing to “take our business away”; and that appears to be exactly what is planned in this arrangement.

Cornwall council intends to introduce franchising by 2018 to provide an integrated network when the next rail franchise starts in December 2018 which will provide half-hourly services into the county.


Photo: Bus stop at Mousehole Harbour. Photograph © David Hawgood and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.