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Time to franchise Bristol and Bath bus services

November 28, 2018

Transport is once again the big issue in the Bristol and Bath city region. Bus disruptions and traffic jams have become the norm in Bristol.  The hundreds of millions spent on Metro Bus has not brought about a transformation. The bus companies have staff shortages, which will be worsened by Brexit. It appears that nothing is being done to fix the system. Air pollution is chronically bad in several parts of Bath and Bristol. Drastic action is needed to reduce traffic and emissions.

Last year saw the election of the first regional mayor of the new West of England Combined Authority (WECA) and this was an opportunity for a step change. We were supposed to finally have the strategic body we needed to sort out our transport woes. However, Mayor Tim Bowles has shown himself ineffectual, being barely noticed across the region. He has the powers to make a big difference but seems strangely reluctant to use them. This leaves the bus companies free to carry on making their own rules.

A recent example would be yet another new fare structure, this time the introduction of flat fares. While a good idea in principle, the changes have been nothing but a thinly veiled guise for a fare increase. Bristol’s Mayor Rees can talk to First Bus as much as he likes, but in the end, they do not answer to him. He’s appointed himself Bristol Council’s transport lead but he has very few actual powers to make a difference. Real change can only be achieved by the Regional Mayor shaking up the system.

To jolt Tim Bowles into action, a campaign has launched that is pressing for him to use his powers. Take Control of Bristol’s Buses is petitioning* Mayor Bowles, WECA and Bristol City Council to work towards bus franchising for the region. The Bristol Lib Dems and I have long supported this approach, it was included in my Regional Mayor manifesto last year.*

A franchising system allows the Regional Mayor to set the routes, timetables and fares that they want, which private companies can then submit bids for routes. This would make our buses accountable to the communities they serve, rather than shareholders around the world.

This provides many benefits over our current privatised, unregulated system. Similar to London, bus companies will be committed to the services they provide, having signed a contract with the authority and so no longer able to cancel services at the drop of a hat.

Unprofitable, but no less vital bus routes could be paired with profitable routes. This would force companies to run the services that communities rely on, alongside their profitmaking routes.

If poor services are provided then a bus company can be dropped at the next tendering of the contract, holding companies to account for the service they provide.

Some of the main roads in our city suffer from terrible pollution.  The London Road, east of Bath city centre and the Gloucester Road and Bedminster Parade in Bristol are among the worst affected. Buses and coaches in Bristol produce over a fifth of the nitrogen oxide emissions but account for just 1% of vehicles. Buses and other commercial vehicles contribute most of the diesel fine particulates that can cause respiratory problems. Whilst some progress is being made to reduce the pollution from buses, franchising would supercharge this trend. We would be able to set emissions standards for buses, pushing our system on to biofuel and electric propulsion faster than bus companies are currently willing to go.

We can finally plan our transport in a coherent way across Bristol and Bath, integrating with rail links across the region. With better integration, our entire public transport system becomes more attractive, getting people out of their cars and on to buses and trains. To tackle urban pollution we need people to make that switch and franchising could be the first step.

In a recent interview with BBC Points West, Tim Bowles was asked if he’d support taking control of our buses. He dodged the question. We must demand better than this inaction.

The role of Regional Mayor has the potential to be transformative for our region, bringing in investment and producing plans to tackle transport and housing problems that hamstring our region. The Bristol and Bath city region is the nation’s most economically successful outside London. With ambitious transport planning and using our new powers creatively we could win more investment from around the world and take our rightful place as one of Europe’s most attractive regions to live, work and invest.



The bus franchise petition can be signed here –

My regional mayor manifesto from 2017 contained a detailed plan to transform public transport in the West of England –


5 Comments leave one →
  1. Doug Reid permalink
    November 28, 2018 7:14 pm


    A well thought out piece Bristol needs  transportation planning to thrive.


  2. Paul permalink
    November 28, 2018 7:25 pm

    The question is really do we want to
    A, Keep the Status Quo
    B, Massively subsidise Public Transport?

    To have a comprehensive mass transit system it needs to cover all the City (not just the commuter routes) be regular all times of the days and be affordable. It appears there’s very little money in the routes and times outside of peak commuter routes. Calling it franchising won’t make private contractors bid for it.

    In an ideal world we’d do it ourselves and fund it via Council Tax & Business Levy’s, but it’s never, ever going to happen. The introduction of the CZ reducing congestion in the Central area and the promise of an uncosted silver bullet at some undefined date in the future is going to do for the foreseeable.

    • November 28, 2018 9:39 pm

      Thanks Doug.

    • November 28, 2018 9:42 pm

      Franchising isn’t a semantic change. It’s a contractual relationship that will change bus operators’ behaviour. It works in London. Bus companies will always want to do business in Bristol and Bath, the most prosperous city region outside London.

      • Paul permalink
        November 29, 2018 9:39 am

        It happens in London because there are about 8m commuters using an integrated public transport system with an underground system. Trying to use London as a like for like comparison is just completely pointless, we don’t have an underground or 8m daily commuters to fund it.

        ‘Bus companies will always want to do business in Bristol and Bath’

        So can you explain how exactly you would convince a private operator (whose business is making money running buses) to run a comprehensive and cheap bus service in Bristol at a loss?

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