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West of England mayor holds talks with Andy Burnham about bus franchising after local campaign

Metro Mayor Dan Norris has faced months of calls to formally explore taking Bristol’s struggling bus services back into public control.

Image of Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and his West of Englad counterpart Dan Norris.
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The West of England metro mayor has held talks with Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, about bringing buses under public control. Dan Norris has asked his staff to prepare a new report on bus franchising which will be published early next year.

This week the first buses under bus franchising began running in Greater Manchester, marking the start of a major overhaul of how public transport is operated. Fares, routes and timetables will be set by local politicians rather than private companies.

Earlier this year the Cable published an in-depth exploration, as part of our Future of Cities series, asking whether bus franchising can offer a route out of the public transport chaos that has brought misery to many Bristolians’ lives.

The city region has also recently been debating the merits of alternative ‘mass transit‘ options. Norris and his city mayor counterpart Marvin Rees have squared off over the possibility of building an underground system in Bristol – which a report leaked this month indicated is feasible.

Norris has faced months of calls and increasing pressure to formally explore how bus franchising could help the greater Bristol region’s struggling public transport network. He now appears to be acting on those calls — and more details of how franchising could work will be set out in the new report, which is expected to be published to the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) committee in the new year.

‘Important discussions need to continue’

“We need a better bus service. Franchising could be a great solution, but it’s clear it also brings financial risk to taxpayers,” Norris said. “One thing that’s also clear is a lot of change is necessary with big choices, and reaching agreement on issues from the amount of capital funding the government provides, to who manages every bus stop.

“I’ve had some important discussions which need to continue,” Norris added.

Leaders of the three councils in the West of England — Bristol, South Gloucestershire, Bath and North East Somerset — have all urged Norris to formally explore how bus franchising could work. More than 2,000 petitioners have also called on the mayor to look into the idea.

Bus services in England were mostly deregulated in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher’s government, with private companies having a much greater say in fares, routes and timetables than in most other European countries.

One major exception to the rule is London, where franchising has been in place for many years and services are much better than elsewhere in England. The Cable’s article from earlier this year also highlighted how bus franchising on Jersey had demonstrated that the right kind of regulation can achieve impressive results in areas outside the capital.

The government gave combined authorities the legal powers to introduce bus franchising in 2017, and Greater Manchester is the first to use those new powers. A fleet of 50 electric buses have started running in Bolton, Wigan and parts of Salford and Bury, and a wider rollout is due to be completed by 2025.

As well as Burnham, Norris said he has also spoken with other metro mayors, including Steve Rotheram in Liverpool and Sadiq Khan in London. He called for a new board to be set up in the West of England, similar to Transport for London, with the powers and resources to run an “efficient and effective regional public transport service”.

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