Bus market overhaul is an 'expensive gamble'
COUNCIL bosses face "significant obstacles" in their attempts to overhaul Bristol's bus system, MPs have warned.
And the Government has said the city council would lose out on funding if drastic changes go ahead.
The authority wants to set up a franchise arrangement, known as a Quality Contract, allowing it to control timetables, routes and fares.
It would be the first council in the country to do so, under powers introduced more than a decade ago.
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Bus operator FirstGroup has claimed the switch would be an expensive gamble. But council bosses say their relationship with the transport giant "cannot carry on as it is".
A report by the influential Transport Select Committee says Quality Contracts are "a legitimate" option, and that councils should use them to put pressure on bus companies.
But they said: "That no local authority has implemented a Quality Contract more than a decade after the provisions were introduced suggests that there are significant hurdles to overcome, particularly for the first local authority to go down this route."
This includes the costs, which have been estimated at around £1 million a year, plus the same amount to set it up, and the "interim risks to bus services".
Yesterday the government announced reforms to the way that bus subsidies are managed, in an attempt to curb a decline in usage outside London.
In parts of the country designated as "better bus areas", including Bristol, tax breaks that are currently given to bus companies will be handed to local authorities to allow them to better control the local market.
However, councils will be denied this new power – and any additional cash that comes with it – if they opt for a Quality Contract, Transport Minister Norman Baker said.
Tim Kent, the city council's cabinet member for transport, said he thought his Lib Dem colleague had made a mistake.
He said: "I think it's a mistake by civil servants. I am sure that once Norman has had it pointed out to him his opinion may change."
In other areas where councils have attempted to bring in Quality Contracts, bus operators have threatened to withdraw all their services and sack staff. Mr Baker told the MPs he took a "dim view" of such a "scorched earth policy".
A FirstGroup spokeswoman said: "Quality Contracts are completely untried and we believe they will cost council tax payers money they don't have at the moment."
The Select Committee report also said the bus industry needed to show more leadership to raise the standard of services. Outside London, some services were "not as good as they could or should be," and bus users were treated less favourably than rail passengers, it said.
The First spokeswoman said: "We are keen to work with local councils to improve bus services and welcome the Transport Select Committee's comments that partnership working is the most realistic way of delivering service improvements without increasing council tax payer spending."