A bus franchising deal for the West of England has been backed in a key vote at Bristol City Council. The vote marks an important step closer in bringing the failing bus network back into public control.
Bus franchising would see the West of England combined authority (Weca) have direct control over routes, timetables, prices and which companies operate services. The model is how London runs buses, and Greater Manchester will soon follow suit.
Public and political pressure is growing on Dan Norris, the West of England metro mayor, to explore how a bus franchising model could solve the wider Bristol region’s bus crisis. A majority of Bristol councillors have now backed calls urging him to consider bus franchising.
Liberal Democrat Councillor Andrew Brown said: “There are all sorts of reasons why Bristol’s buses are failing our citizens. But anyone who lives in Bristol, particularly those who live in outlying communities, will tell you that these aren’t just down to the pandemic and current driver shortage. The truth is the service has been struggling for years.
“There is no magic bullet, but we do have levers that we can pull. Unfortunately, the lever that the metro mayor [Dan Norris] has chosen to pull is an enhanced partnership with the bus operators. This appears fatally flawed from the off, giving the region’s biggest bus operator an effective veto. Bus franchising would allow Weca to directly commission services that meet the needs of our residents at affordable prices on buses that are fit for purpose.”
Councillor Brown tabled a motion at a full council meeting on Tuesday, 13 December, urging Norris to launch a feasibility study into franchising, the first step in a legal process to bring the bus network back into public control. The calls received support from all parties in the council, but Labour and Greens also said another option should be publicly owned buses.
For decades buses across the country used to be run by council-owned companies, like the Bristol Omnibus Company. But buses were mostly privatised in the 1980s as part of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. London kept public control of its buses, under franchising, and a few English cities have publicly-owned buses, such as Nottingham.
Bus franchising would see Weca commission contracts to private operators to run routes across the greater Bristol region, but the operators would likely still be private companies keen to make profits from public transport. Councils legally can’t currenty set up their own bus companies, but this could soon change if Labour win the next general election, which is likely in 2024.
The calls for franchising come while Bristol’s bus services in chaos, with a driver shortage causes First Bus to cancel nearly 1,500 services across 19 routes.
Labour in support, Tories against
Labour Councillor Tim Rippington said: “Franchise systems are still a form of privatised system. There is a level of public control but not ownership. Public services put people’s needs before profit, whereas private companies make a profit from public services by cutting corners or under-investing.
“The current system prevents bus companies from cross-subsidising unprofitable services from the more profitable ones, leaving the taxpayer to foot the bill. That’s ridiculous. You pay through privatisation both directly in fares and indirectly by money going to shareholders.
“We support the calls for franchising to be looked at again and more thoroughly by Weca. But we shouldn’t bind ourselves to it if a better option, public ownership, becomes available in the near future. Public ownership is Labour party policy and with national elections in 2024 and the current state of the opinion polls, this could very well happen soon.”
But calls for publicly owned buses were opposed by Conservatives, who likened the financial risk to the council to Bristol Energy, the failed council-owned energy company. They added that neither franchising or publicly owned buses would solve the current problem of a gaping shortage of drivers, recently estimated at 200 across the West of England.
Councillor Mark Weston, leader of the Conservative group, said: “The main problem we have with buses at the moment is a shortage of drivers. It’s not the only one, but it’s the main one exacerbating every other problem we’re having. Franchising or public ownership don’t solve that. There isn’t a lever that we can pull where 200 drivers are just going to appear.
“The franchise model isn’t perfect, I’m relatively agnostic on it. But the idea that publicly owned bus companies are going to be some great panacea, I’m sorry, it’s truly not. It’s like the utopian vision of a publicly-owned energy company, nothing could go wrong there — hang on.
“Do we really want to hand the keys to the transport network to the same organisation that ran [Bristol Energy] into the ground? I think not. It socialises the huge bailout that will be required when it invariably hits the wall. I’m afraid publicly owned is not going to work. It’s delusional and simply not going to happen.”
Elsewhere, more than 1,600 people have now signed an open letter to Dan Norris, urging him to explore bus franchising for the West of England. Franchising is also backed by Karin Smyth, MP for Bristol South, and XR Youth Bristol.
Last week Norris said franchising was still “on the table but not a quick fix”. He added that franchising would not solve the current shortage of drivers.