The Buses Bill must deliver for rural communities, says Claire Walters.
Set for royal assent in May this year, the Buses Bill is being widely heralded as an opportunity to improve bus services for the benefit of all passengers.
Broadly speaking, the Bill covers three elements: franchising, enhanced partnerships and open data.
So far, much of the talk has been around major towns and cities like Manchester, with the focus on what local authorities in these areas could do to improve services if they were able to control them through franchising.
But what does this mean for people living in remote and rural areas, where passenger numbers are much lower and the frequency of buses is often sporadic, if they exist at all?
There is a view that rural areas could benefit from the Bill if local authorities use their franchise agreements to require operators to deliver services on routes which, while not profitable, are very much needed by those communities.
While this is great in theory, will it stack up in areas where there are disproportionately more rural communities than the big cities and towns needed to create the financial counter balance?
No matter what your view of the Bill might be, it is critical that rural communities are not left even further behind their urban counterparts than is already the case.
Bus Users is contacted on a weekly, almost daily, basis by passengers concerned that their services are going to be reduced or removed altogether, leaving them isolated and without access to schools, employment, health services, shops, friends and family.
This is a major problem, particularly for young, old and vulnerable people.
Rural communities should be fully consulted when it comes to local bus services, and their needs should be a key consideration in any franchise or enhanced partnership agreement.
Bus Users has been working hard to reinforce the message among those involved in producing the Bill and its supporting guidance, of the need for passenger consultation.
If their voices are not heard, rural communities will be left behind and local bus services will be hit harder still.
Bus Users will continue to work with local authorities to make sure the needs of these communities are properly considered, so the opportunities of the Buses Bill can be fully realised, and bus services improved for all passengers.
Claire Walters is chief executive of Bus Users UK. For details, visit http://bususers.org/.