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Bristol Post
Bristol Post
Alex Seabrook

Bus franchising would be easier ‘if Bristol had a tram network’, says West of England mayor

The West of England metro mayor has said bringing buses back under public control would be easier if Bristol had a tram network. Dan Norris said he “greatly regretted” that Bristol and South Gloucestershire did not manage to start building a tram network in the early 2000s.

Campaigners and several local politicians are calling for bus franchising as a way out of the current crisis in the region’s ailing public transport system. But the Labour metro mayor has said this model, used in London and many European cities, could end up losing the taxpayer money.

A tram line connecting Broadmead to Cribbs Causeway was almost built two decades ago, when Labour was in government and Mr Norris was a junior minister. But after delays and rows about where the line should end, the government scrapped the funding for new trams and the Bristol Supertram project was finally dropped in 2004.

Read more: What happened to the shelved £200m trams plan two decades ago

Five other cities in England did receive funding for new tram networks — Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield, Croydon and Birmingham — between 1992 and 2004. And profits made from these networks are reinvested back into the city’s public transport.

Mr Norris was questioned about bus franchising in Bristol and the wider region, during a West of England Combined Authority meeting on Friday, June 16. This came after being pressed by members of the public why he had not formally begun investigating the model as a way to drive up quality and restore important bus services to cut-off parts of the region.

Roberta Oliver, who works at the Hubs Mobility Advice Service, said: “My role involves helping people with mobility issues who cannot drive, to get out and about without a car. Travelling by bus is often the only option, however I have increasingly noticed that I don’t have any travel options to advise people on, as many bus routes have been cut.

“For example, the other day I was working with someone who lives in Downend and is a wheelchair user, who would like to access Bristol city centre in the evenings for leisure activities. The bus which is accessible, without having to travel up a steep hill, has been axed as it was not profitable.

“Community transport only operates during the day and wheelchair accessible taxis are not always available and are expensive on a regular basis. The only option is for family members to drive him into the city centre — this isn’t a sustainable green alternative.

“The only way to avoid these issues is to have more public control of how services are delivered. In the interest of communities across the West of England, I would strongly encourage this committee to consider formally investigating the option of franchising bus services.”

Maria Carvalho, from the Reclaim Our Buses campaign, added: “In Winterbourne young people are facing difficulty accessing education after several bus cuts. Bus routes that people rely on have been heavily cut and on existing routes people are often waiting for buses that never show up. We know these bus services aren’t functioning as they should, but we currently have very little control over this.

“Under deregulation bus companies dictate prices, routes and timetables, however there is a viable alternative which is widely supported — franchising. We’re left in the dark as to why this has not been formally investigated. The current system is clearly failing us. It’s the common-sense solution to put the public back in the driving seat.

“Under franchising, evidence shows that 50% of profits could be reinvested back into the service, profits from popular routes could be used to subsidise less busy routes so that all communities could have a decent service. Fares would be cheaper and consistent, and franchising would have five or 10-year contracts that would stop private companies from cutting services year after year.

“Many other places have been looking into franchising, including Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region, Cambridgeshire, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and the West Midlands. Why do these areas deserve to have a London-style bus service, but we don’t?”

Buses have been under public control in London for decades, and are just about to be brought back under public control in Greater Manchester. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, is introducing bus franchising to the region, which will see passengers hold bus companies to account for the quality of services they provide. But part of this work is funded by an extensive network of trams, money which the West of England doesn’t have.

Mr Norris said: “We all want London-style bus services, the issue is about how we best do that. While some combined authorities are talking about it in earnest at the moment, what I’m acutely aware of is my good friend Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester has had quite a long time to think about this, and he’s only just started to do it after four years.

“He has some big advantages that we don’t have in the West of England Combined Authority area, which is a very profitable tram system. One of the great regrets that I have is that our region did not take the money that was made available by the Labour government when I was in it, to get a tram system between Bristol and South Gloucestershire.

“We may have been in a position where we had profits that we could have used to cross-subsidise bus services. It’s a very complicated issue but I haven’t ruled it out in any way. It’s very much on the table but I don’t want to do is go full throttle into very expensive huge numbers of consultants and all the rest of it. I want to do some earlier work than that, which we will be doing, so that we can move forward properly.

“My concern is that in our case there could be no profits. We would be responsible for all the liabilities that occurred. So it has to be done really carefully, sure-footedly, wisely. I would rather be not at the cutting edge and getting it right. What I’m not going to do is take a risk with public money and leave us in a position where we have a bus service that maybe loses money and then we’re in a really deep pickle.”

Louise Haigh, the shadow transport secretary, has previously said if Labour were elected in a general election next year, she would give all councils the powers to introduce bus franchising. At the moment only combined authorities have the powers to do so, since the government changed the law in the Bus Services Act in 2017. Greater Manchester is the first combined authority to bring in franchising since the law changed, but others are formally investigating it too.

However, Ms Haigh has also promised that a Labour government would lift the current legal ban on councils and combined authorities setting up publicly owned bus companies. Before Margaret Thatcher scrapped regulation for the bus industry in the 1980s, many bus companies were owned by local councils, as is still the case in a few places now such as Nottingham and Reading.

Bus franchising is different from public ownership, as private companies like First or Stagecoach would still bid to run services and try to make a profit. But the main difference is that under the current laws, franchising is legally possible whereas setting up a publicly owned bus company is not. Although that could change if Labour wins the next general election, expected in October next year.

Mr Norris said: “If we franchise, it’s not the same as ownership. If there was a national government prepared to have state ownership, I would be very interested in that. But franchising is not state ownership, and you read articles in the Post and elsewhere where you’d think it was, because it’s not made clear that it’s a very different option.

“Franchising still needs the bus companies to give us the option and say this is how much it would cost to run a bus service, they would still want their profit margin, so we wouldn’t necessarily get that, so there’s all sorts of challenges. We need to do some preliminary work, depending on that we may have to spend a bit more money getting an even more detailed report, because I am interested in it.

“We’ve got to be confident, prudent and sensible as well as ambitious. It’s an exciting possibility, but it’s not a silver bullet.”

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