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Partnerships : a fair deal?

Local authorities are still wary of private bus operators. But partnerships are an alternative to legislation.

The Local Government Association voiced concern this week that private transport operators will back away from partnership deals unless a firm legislative framework is in place.

This is understandable. Many local authority officers argue that 20 years of voluntary agreements have shown that the private sector cannot be trusted without backing from the law .

The LGA's head of transport, Andy Elmer, claims that legally enforceable Quality Contracts - effectively franchises for certain routes - are the only way to ensure the bus becomes 'the thoroughbred instead of the work horse.'

'Without legislation we will not be able to guarantee the bus as the main solution to integrated transport in the medium to short term, and there is nothing to take its place,' he says.

But bus operators are adamant that they can make the Government's scheme of Quality Partnerships work without new laws. They claim that any move back to bus regulation would be a retrograde step and would stifle the competition needed to bring about real changes in standards of service.

'The regulations for timetables and vehicle quality are already in place,' says Go-Ahead Group commercial director Chris Moyes. 'They just need enforcing better.'

There are many steps that can be taken to stop rogue operators from eroding the reputation of the bus. Guided busways, specially designed bus stops for low floors and transponders fitted to vehicles to trigger priority movements at traffic lights will allow better competition with the car. But high investment in vehicles is needed to reap the benefits - something that rogues can ill afford.

Local authorities worry about the cost of improving the infrastructure for buses. However, large transport firms are increasingly saying that by working in partnership they will fund civil engineering work as well as vehicles.

Britain's biggest bus operator First Group has 32 partnership schemes with local authorities already funded or up and running. The latest is the £10M East Leeds guided busway, to which it has contributed £3M towards vehicles and guideway systems.

In common with the other big operators, the company says it is happy to continue up-front investment so long as it is beneficial to its bottom line. That will only be the case, however, if it is not hampered by over- regulation.

In three years, once congestion charging is in place and local authorities have new income streams to invest in infrastructure, they may be justified in wanting more control. But in the meantime, in the interests of freeing town centre traffic jams, they should be more trusting and grasp the hand of help.

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