Taking back control of Bristol’s buses ‘absolutely on the table’, reveals Metro Mayor

Exclusive: Plans to franchise the region’s bus services are already ‘under ongoing review’ says Metro Mayor Dan Norris

Bringing bus services back under public control is an option that is ‘absolutely on the table’ in order to solve Bristol’s bus crisis, the region’s Metro Mayor has said.

Dan Norris told BristolWorld that the option to franchise services ‘remained under ongoing review’ just days after Bristol’s mayor Marvin Rees called for the move amid frustrations over timetable changes by First Bus last month.

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Problems continued over the bank holiday weekend when no fewer than 17 services were hit by cuts, cancellations and delays, according to Mr Norris who has approached First Bus and Stagecoach for an explanation.

And now Mr Norris has said that he is open to the idea to franchise services - a move which would enable a public authority to decide on the routes, timetables and fare, while bus companies would bid to run services.

Mr Norris said:“Creating a thriving West of England bus service that is high quality, reliable and affordable to use is a huge priority. It is also essential if we are to reach our highly ambitious net-zero targets by 2030.

“Franchising is absolutely on the table as a possible future option and remains under ongoing review.”

Mr Norris’s fellow Metro Mayor in Manchester, Andy Burnham, recently pushed ahead with franchising in the city after a High Court ruling found the move was ‘not unlawful’ despite legal challenges from Stagecoach Manchester and Rotola.

Metro Mayor Dan Norris said that franchising bus services in Bristol was a viable option he would be in favour of.

Under bus franchising, the deregulated bus market is suspended and bus operators are only able to provide services under contract to the local transport authority. This approach is used extensively across Europe, and in London.

But, unlike Manchester, the West of England doesn’t have trams that make significant profits that can be used to support loss-making bus services.

As a result, franchising is a ‘tougher option’ for Bristol right now, said Mr Norris, along with the fact that the West of England Combined Authority hasn’t secured a long-term funding deal from the Government for regional buses.

“Currently my efforts have to be concentrated on improving what we have,” Mr Norris went on, “But franchising remains a possible future option.”

Mr Norris recently secured £105million from the Government to improve bus services in the WECA region - the second highest in the country.

That money, however, comes with rules saying the Metro Mayor can’t spend the cash to save bus services being cut or reduced, which Mr Norris said he found ‘bonkers’.

“I’m talking to the Government to try and sort this out,” he said.

Dozens of bus routes were impacted by changes to timetables, which came into force on Sunday

“I’m enormously proud to have won the highest amount of cash nationwide - half a billion - for transport services more widely.

“But we still need much, much more to create the local transport system local people both need and deserve”.

The boss of First Bus, Doug Claringbold, defended the timetable changes last month - claiming the ‘vast majority’ of users will notice a more reliable service from today.

And now the company has responded to calls for Bristol’s bus service to be brought back under public control.

A spokesperson said bus services in the city should be improved through an Enhanced Partnership - an agreement under the Bus Services Act 2017 between the local authority and bus operator to make services better.

The EP provides the local authority powers to see data from operators on routes, journey times and punctuality.

The spokesperson said: “While we believe that franchising misses the opportunities that a partnership approach offers, we remain committed to continuing to work with Local Transport Authorities to develop a sustainable network in a way that works best for customers and communities.

“As a business First Bus believes that Enhanced Partnerships are the best way for local authorities and operators to work together to improve bus services. This model allows for operators and local authorities to combine their knowledge and find good solutions for everyone’s needs.”