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Bristol Post
Bristol Post
Alex Seabrook

New petition launches demanding buses in Bristol be brought under public control

A new petition has launched demanding buses in Bristol and the wider area be brought back under public control. Hundreds of people signed the petition within hours of it launching and organisers hope it will provide evidence of the “huge public support” for bus franchising.

Campaigners said that recent bus cuts have left elderly and disabled people in Ashton Vale stranded, children struggling to get to school in Winterbourne, and vulnerable people unable to access vital services. Reclaim Our Buses is calling for public control of the bus network. It comes as Bristol Live is running a campaign for better buses in the city.

They are urging Dan Norris, the West of England Labour metro mayor, to formally begin a legal process exploring how franchising could work in Bristol, South Gloucestershire, Bath and North East Somerset. Mr Norris said the option was “on the table” and his combined authority has helped train up dozens of new bus drivers this year.

Read more: People in Bristol can now get free buses during birthday month

Jane Caines was one of many campaigners who gathered on College Green on Friday, July 7, to launch the new petition. She lives in Ashton Vale, where the number 23 bus route was withdrawn in April. The service cut has left many people in the area much more isolated.

She said: “We are just isolated. We have to get taxis where we want to go. Half the people down our way are disabled and elderly. A lot of them now can’t get out at all. [Franchising] would be a public service vehicle, not a profit-sharing vehicle. Dan Norris can spend money on the routes which aren’t profitable, he can do it. But he ain’t done it.”

Another campaigner was Patricia Franey, who lives in Cotham. She said it’s often quicker for her to walk home from Temple Meads rather than catch a bus, which might not turn up. She added that the city’s problems with public transport have a huge effect on the elderly and young parents.

She said: “Bristol describes itself as an age-friendly city. It is not an age-friendly city, it is an ageist city. The people who are the victims of that ageism are older people and young parents who rely on an efficient bus service. It’s quicker for me to walk from Cotham to Temple Meads than to wait for a bus that doesn’t come, is late, or there’s no seats.”

Many of the bus routes which were cut earlier this year were subsidised by local councils. Some routes make a profit for the companies which operate the buses, while others cost more money to run than they bring in through fares.

Due to rapidly rising costs, councils in the West of England chose not to increase their subsidies to match inflation, so several subsidised routes were withdrawn. With franchising, income from busy and popular routes could be kept back and spent on these subsidies.

Another reason for recent bus cuts was the sudden shortage of drivers. This began when Britain left the European Union, creating a lack of lorry drivers. Many bus drivers then switched to driving lorries, with much higher salaries, creating a knock on effect. In Bristol, First cut the frequency of many routes last autumn, before increasing them again this spring.

In a statement, Mr Norris said: “Creating a thriving, reliable bus network for passengers is a big priority for me. I’ve always said franchising is on the table. But it’s not a magic bullet. The biggest issue we and other regions have been facing on the buses is the severe bus driver shortage — that includes Greater Manchester, which has franchising.

“Although we are gripping this — training dozens of drivers this year alone. And I’m proud to have introduced new and innovative solutions to our bus challenges like my Birthday Bus scheme to get more people using public transport, which will mean more money to make further improvements to the bus network.”

According to Maria Carvalho, from Reclaim Our Buses, franchising would help solve the shortage of drivers. The West of England Combined Authority would be responsible for regulating the bus network, and would put out contracts for individual routes, on which operator companies would bid to run. These contracts could include working conditions.

Ms Carvalho said: “Under franchising, you can incorporate employment and standards into the contracts with the bus companies. And that’s a key difference with the system that we have now and the franchising system, in a way that would benefit bus drivers. Unite, who represents bus drivers, has backed this petition because they can see that this is a long term solution to the current crisis in bus services.

“In London where they have had a franchising system forever, there is much higher retention of bus drivers. If people have good working conditions, it’s just basic common sense that they’re more likely to stay in the job and it will become a more attractive employment offer."

Private companies would likely still run many of the services under franchising, which is a separate system than public ownership. Combined authorities were given the legal power to bring in franchising by the government in 2017. The law currently doesn’t allow setting up publicly owned companies, but that could change if Labour wins a general election next year.

A few places in Britain still have publicly owned bus companies, such as Reading, Newport and Nottingham. The Bristol Omnibus Company was publicly owned, until Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government made major reforms to buses in the 1980s, when the former main operator in the city and many others were sold off to private companies.

One issue with the bus network in Bristol is that several companies run services along the same routes, but passengers cannot use a ticket from one company with another. In London and under new plans in Manchester, passengers can use the same ticket regardless of operator, due to public oversight of the network from the mayors Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham.

Campaigners refuted the claim from the metro mayor that bus franchising was “on the table”, as well as recent comments that having a profitable tram network would help pay for the switch. Ms Carvalho, who organised the petition, said Mr Norris needs to begin a formal legal process.

She said: “He’s told us that franchising is on the table, but it can’t actually be on the table until he formally starts investigating franchising and develops a business case. Until that’s on the table we can’t say whether franchising is the best option or not, he needs to start that formal process.

“He’s also alluded to the fact that we don’t have a profitable mass transit system, we don’t have trams, however about half of the other metro mayors who have recently done feasibility studies and business cases around franchising — and have determined that it’s the preferred option for their areas — do not have a tram system or mass transport system.”

It’s unclear how much bus franchising would cost the combined authority, according to Ms Carvalho, who added a formal study into the option would include estimated costs. She also said that £8 million was available to spend on providing free bus travel for passengers during the month of their birthday, as well as an earmarked £15 million study into mass transit.

She said: “Franchising saves costs in the long run because it makes the whole system more efficient, because all the routes are integrated, more profitable routes can subsidise the least profitable routes, and it just creates a more efficient system overall. We’re quite baffled at why Dan Norris isn’t taking this forward.

“He’s found money for a birthday bus scheme, he’s found money for a really expensive feasibility study for a mass transit system. We’re not against any of those schemes, but if there’s money there then there must be money to formally investigate franchising as an option for the West of England.

“We’re hoping that we don’t have to escalate the campaign in any way. We’re hoping that by the next West of England Combined Authority committee meeting in September, that Dan Norris brings bus franchising to a vote to that committee and starts a formal statutory process to begin investigating franchising thoroughly and properly.

“I’ve been working in mental health services and domestic violence services for nine years. I’ve seen that over the years people who need to access those services are struggling to get into town, because they can’t afford the bus tickets or their bus routes have been cut. So people are struggling to access the essential services that they need for their wellbeing.”

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