Since the National Bus Company was broken up in the mid to late eighties, and bus services were deregulated to allow for local competition, the market has been regarded as one of the principal means to ensure accountability of private bus companies.
At the start, the market did provide a powerful driver for competition and ensured that accountability – as expressed through passenger needs, and income from fares – was taken seriously. However, the large number of company mergers in the late eighties and through the nineties, which resulted in a small number of very large providers (many of which have, or had, local monopolies) diluted this effect and led government to consider additional steps to ensure accountability.
In urban areas, passenger transport executives, PTEs, (which are now directed by Integrated Transport Authorities, ITAs, which wide powers for local public transport) set operational policy and liaise with bus operators over timetables and fares. Neither PTEs or ITAs have specific powers to control fares or routes but they have sought to exert more control through the creation of “Quality Partnerships”, by which local authorities (often through the ITA) will fund infrastructure improvements in return for service improvements on the part of the bus operator.
In some areas, a PTE might subsidise a certain route or service if it is uneconomic for the operator to provide it as part of its business. These services are called “tendered services”. In some areas a large number of routes are tendered, giving the local authority (or PTE/ITA) more clout, and more day to day operational responsibility. Under these circumstances the bus operators begins to look more like the regulated Transport for London bus providers, which provide services according to detailed specifications laid down by TfL Buses.
Accountability differs, therefore, based on the circumstances of the operator/local authority relationship. Local scrutiny committees have experienced difficulties engaging with bus companies, particularly when the company is in receipt of minimal subsidy or there is not an active Quality Partnership. Under these circumstances operators prefer to negotiate directly with user groups (either independent groups or ones they have set up themselves). Equally some operators are more comfortable with the involvement of the local authority – and some bus companies are in fact still owned by local authorities, making their accountability relationship with local councillors even clearer.
In London, the London Assembly has a formal role in holding Transport for London to account, which include local bus services. In London, therefore, transport scrutiny at borough level is minimal.