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The routes out of Bristol’s bus nightmare

Solutions in Bristol

Bristol’s buses are gridlocked and there's growing clamour for change. But where to next? We break down the options.

Words: Adam Cantwell-Corn

Illustration: Louis Wood

Behind the daily stress thousands of Bristolians face as a bus cruises past, full – or doesn’t turn up at all – is a deeply political story. It begins with the Transport Act 1985, under which bus companies owned by public authorities were privatised. Besides providing a nice little earner for buyers, the act was intended to drive standards up and costs down for consumers, while saving the public purse from running a service predicted to be eclipsed by the car.

Much like some buses, the public benefits didn’t turn up. In Bristol’s case, the buses came to be dominated by First West of England (FWE), which faces no significant competition. Despite turning a profit after tax of £4.2m last year the company, which is owned by mega-corporation FirstGroup, regularly cuts back routes deemed not profitable enough.

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Facing the prospect of communities being cut off, this leaves the public to pick up the tab. FWE and other operators are paid by the council to carry on running the services to the tune of £1.5m a year to support over 11 routes. Additionally, FWE received £7.5m in government subsidies in the last two years.

Meanwhile, ticket prices have increased and social media is awash with frustrating and tragic stories of missed appointments, lost jobs, soggy clothes and foregone opportunities. And then there’s the lost potential for the city to help tackle everything from loneliness to reducing air pollution and carbon emissions.

But now there’s an opportunity to solve some of these issues. Here are the options.

Franchising: the best option – if the political stars can align

The Bus Services Act 2017 blocked councils from fully reversing the damage of earlier Tory legislation by re-establishing municipal bus companies. But it created an opportunity for the return of local control – via franchising. Under the system, regional mayors are empowered to set routes, fares and timetables. Like in London, operators then bid to run services, by offering the best value.

“Under franchising, if the buses remained shoddy or were losing money, affected citizens could hold the mayor accountable at the ballot box”

The current setup allows big operators like First squeeze out competitors, with little scope for passengers or elected representatives to do anything about it. But with franchising, public authorities would be able to make bus companies compete with one another, and could keep tabs on ticket prices, support less profitable but socially necessary routes and ensure services join up. And plough all the money raised from the fares back into the service.

If the buses remained shoddy or were losing money, the legions of citizens affected could hold the mayor accountable for it at the ballot box. This factor, the theory goes, would incentivise local authorities to take responsibility for the bigger issues that affect the buses no matter who is in charge – like traffic congestion, and cycling and walking infrastructure. Given its expertise and vehicles, FWE could still end up with the franchise. But the public would have more control.

So far so good. But what would it actually take to introduce this in the Bristol area?

The first thing to know is that this isn’t an issue just for Bristol council. The power to introduce franchising rests with Tim Bowles, the Conservative mayor of the West of England Combined Authority (WECA). Despite being entrusted with significant power since being set up in 2017, it’s fair to say that WECA hasn’t had a massive impact on public debate. But as of April, WECA will take over responsibility for overseeing bus services across Bristol, Bath and North East Somerset (BANES) and South Gloucestershire. The question is, is there the political will to take franchising forward?

While a self-proclaimed “bus fanatic” occupies Downing Street, the Conservatives’ man in WECA is lukewarm when it comes to franchising, pointing to the costs and risks.

The most obvious risk is cash flow. Bus companies currently take home profits, but also carry the can if things go badly. Under franchising, WECA, (i.e. all of us local taxpayers), will have to plug the gap if bus passenger numbers and the revenues raised from fares do not exceed the fixed fee paid to the bus companies to run the service.

Then there’s the costs and process of getting franchising up and working, which no other city or region has yet done, aside from London’s longstanding setup. It would involve undertaking an expensive and detailed assessment, purchasing land and facilities from bus companies and setting up a beefed-up in-house transport team in WECA to manage things. Then there’s the major road infrastructure works needed to make franchising, or any model, work – which would also annoy a whole load of motorists. It’s not straightforward stuff, and would take several years at least to come into force.

These are not minor risks and involve major upfront costs. But there are bigger risks of having substandard public transport, from socially isolating people, to, crucially, failing to mitigate the region’s contribution to the climate crisis. Companies like First may carry the financial risk now, but we all ultimately pay a price for poor buses.

Taking on the challenge will need brave political leadership. It’s not looking likely we’ll find that in Tim Bowles or WECA immediately. Ironic bus-related jokes pretty much write themselves: WECA’s bus strategy has been delayed. It was set to be published in spring 2019, but has only just been made available for public consultation in February 2020.

But the politics are changeable. While the metro mayoral election isn’t until May 2021, BANES council is keen to see franchising explored and, though hesitant, Marvin Rees could swing behind it, which would ratchet up the pressure on Bowles. With the Greens and Lib Dems in favour of franchising, and with numerous campaigns drumming up support, the issue will keep Labour’s feet to the fire in this May’s local elections.

If those stars align, that’s just the end of the beginning. Fortunately, Greater Manchester, under metro mayor Andy Burnham, is set to be the first regional authority to undertake franchising. If Burnham decides to go ahead in March, he appears to have an ally in Unite, the trade union representing most bus workers.

In Manchester – as would likely happen in Bristol – bus companies rallied together to lobby against franchising, pledging millions in investments in routes, an eco-friendly fleet and so on. In this respect, even the threat of franchising has had some impact on companies accustomed to having a free hand. The question has got to be, well why haven’t you done this before – and why should we trust you to carry it through?

Overall, franchising seems like the best long-term policy option available, but there’s a lot of political traffic to get through. So what else is on the cards?

The buyout: the wildcard in the deck

Acorn community union are campaigning for better buses.

UPDATE: First Group have now confirmed that First Bus, the UK bus division, will not be for sale in the foreseeable future.

FirstGroup, the massive global transport corporation that ultimately owns Bristol’s buses, announced last year the possibility of selling its UK bus operations, First Bus. Shareholders, led by a New York-based hedge fund, are reportedly getting nervous about profits. At the time of writing, it’s not clear if any sale will take place. FirstGroup told the Cable that over the coming months it intends “to deliver improvements before launching any sale process”.

In the event of a sale, First Bus and its local services could just be snapped up by other operators – meaning business as usual. But another option would be a management and worker buyout; that crazy old idea where the people who do the work also own the company. If FWE’s managers and 1,800 employees were up for it, they would have to raise a lot of money – especially with bus use on the up locally and a reasonably performing local company (good profits in 2019 but next to nothing and losses in the years before). The new set up could have a range of control and ownership models for the workers and managers.

That’s not a simple operation – though FWE’s managing director, James Freeman, does have some experience in the matter. Widely recognised as a decent bloke and described to the Cable by a local bus expert as “one of the finest busmen and transport minds around”, Freeman led a buyout of buses in Hampshire in the late 80s following privatisation, and also ran Reading’s council-owned service.

Still, a changing of hands might not mean much. The new firm could carry on running things in the same way, with the public granted no more control than before.

Unless, that is, Bristol’s mayor and council stepped up and went in on a buyout in return for a significant share in the company. This would help pay for the buyout, make the company more accountable to local people and incentivise the council to make the buses work properly. The council is keeping schtum so far, but the community union ACORN is ramping up a campaign and petition in support of this option as an alternative to franchising.

Partnerships: the safe, middling bet

Amid all the uncertainty, Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees has been pushing ahead with a grandly titled ‘Bristol Bus Deal’ with First Bus (and potentially other operators), based on a non-legally binding memorandum of understanding. Under the deal, First would invest in more frequent services, in exchange for the council implementing anti-congestion measures on key routes.

Which is the sticking point: the partnership would be based on First’s continuing voluntary cooperation in exchange for more taxpayer spending, but would provide limited control or stability in the long term. There is as yet little information from the mayor on the cost of such a deal, how it would be managed and when it might happen. Nevertheless, along with new Metrobus routes, the deal could at least begin to deliver much-needed improvements that would be welcomed by Bristol’s long-suffering commuters.

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What card to play in deck stacked against buses?

Just as it did in 1985, the future operation of our buses will ultimately boil down to who is left with power over what. At present, varying degrees of clout rest with First Bus, WECA and Bristol’s own mayor and council – along with other regional and national authorities. But those bodies can be influenced by everyone from FirstGroup’s shareholders, to local campaigners – including persistent groups such as the Transport for Greater Bristol Alliance. With bolder and more imaginative solutions, like free bus travel for all, unlikely to arrive any time soon, when it comes to sorting Bristol’s buses it’s all a question of which route gets you closest to the destination. If we’re looking for a direct service, we’ll be waiting a long time.

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