PLANS to reform the local bus subsidy system have been welcomed by Britain's biggest bus operator.
The government proposals aim to attract more people on to buses while giving local transport authorities more influence over local bus networks.
They also aim to provide more value for taxpayers' money.
A document outlining the planned reforms was published by the Department of Transport on Monday (26 March).
The full document can be downloaded here.
It acknowledges that traditional bus services are not always a viable option for some rural communities, particularly in the most sparsely populated areas.
And it outlines the government's belief that paying bus subsidies direct to bus companies is no longer the best way to support local transport services.
Instead, it proposes to pass some of this funding down to a local level to give communities more control over how it is spent.
The document says this will also encourage bus companies to improve their fuel efficiency and reduce their carbon emissions.
"The most obvious candidate for devolving funding in this way is the Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG)," says the document.
This is the funding currently paid to bus companies for running services outside London under tender to individual local councils.
These services, often in rural areas, would not be viable if they had to be funded entirely by fare-paying passengers.
It is already up to councils to decide which services they wish to put out to tender to fill gaps in the network of bus routes run by bus companies.
Given this, the government believes it would make more sense for the BSOG to be paid direct to councils, rather than to bus operators.
Local councils could use this extra money to improve accessibility by purchasing socially necessarily but uncommercial services, says the document.
This would allow them to look across their areas and decide what local people's highest priorities are for filling gaps in the commercial bus network.
"They could also choose to expand the number and range of community transport services in their area if they felt that these would serve local communities better."
Giles Fearnley, managing director of First UK Bus, said the operator welcomed the proposed package of reforms.
He said: "The government is right to recognise that partnership and collaboration between local authorities, operators and passengers is the way forward, not more regulation.
"Ministers have got the balance right on the main industry subsidy, BSOG.
"Devolving responsibility for BSOG to local authorities for the socially useful services they tender is sensible.
"They will be made more accountable for specifying these services, whilst ensuring that operators can continue to provide them.
Across the country, First worked closely with councils to ensure bus journeys are frequent, reliable and good value for money, said Mr Fearnley.
"These reforms will help us to ensure this remains our priority."
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