Is bus franchising the answer to improve our services?

With the future of our regional bus services in mind, West of England Metro Mayor Dan Norris has held face-to-face talks with his regional counterpart Andy Burnham in Manchester.  

The discussions took place in the week Mr Burnham began to roll out the first franchised buses in part of his city-region.  

The duo of Labour Mayors analysed the six-year road to begin franchising in Manchester, and Mr Burnham pledged to share lessons learned. 

There are key differences between Greater Manchester and the West of England – not least that Manchester has a successful profit-making tram system it can use to cross-subsidise buses.  

Mr Norris has also had talks with other Metro Mayors, including the Liverpool City region Metro Mayor and London’s Sadiq Khan, as well as Mayoral transport teams. Mayor Norris says it is important to learn from other cities and regions, while taking into account the unique circumstances of the West of England.  

Only Metro Mayors have the power to franchise buses through the Bus Services Act. In a franchised system, private bus operators can be required to run certain services, at certain frequencies, for an agreed price. 

Mr Norris says one of the first challenges the West of England needs to overcome is the lack of a ‘Transport for London’-style board. From Greater Manchester, to South Yorkshire, to the West Midlands, most other regions already have such essential bodies.  

The Mayor believes the creation of West of England Sustainable Transport (WEST) – a fully-funded delivery body led by the Mayor, with the powers and resources to run an efficient and effective regional public transport service, needs to be set up. 

Dan Norris said: “We need a better bus service. Franchising could be a great solution, but it’s clear it also brings financial risk to taxpayers. 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.” 

Mr Norris revealed that he had asked West of England Mayoral Combined Authority officers to be ready to present a report to Committee on franchising in the new year.