South Gloucestershire bus passengers hold rally calling for franchising deal

Transport campaigners held a rally outside a South Gloucestershire Council meeting to plead that local leaders tackle the crisis facing the region’s buses by taking them into public control. The activists also read out an open letter, signed by over 1500 West of England residents, in the council chamber.

The Reclaim Our Buses coalition hope that the protest yesterday (December 14) will encourage councillors to “light the way” on buses and encourage leaders in the region to push ahead with bus franchising. This comes as a bus franchising deal for the West of England has been backed in a key vote at Bristol City Council.

But ultimately decisions over buses in the region are made by the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) headed by Metro mayor, Dan Norris. He said that “franchising is on the table” but that the biggest issue currently is the driver shortage.

READ MORE: New bus franchising deal backed in key vote at Bristol City Council

Passengers involved in the Reclaim Our Buses campaign argue that franchising would unlock new powers to protect services, by allowing the profits from busier routes to be reinvested into quieter but vital routes linking communities to essential services like hospitals, schools, and jobs. They also argue franchising would allow the authority to require bus operators to deliver better pay and conditions for drivers and address the shortages plaguing the network.

The statement read out at the council meeting yesterday said residents are “genuinely fearful that people will be cut off from vital facilities” and called on the council to “propose a motion to the West of England Authority which would suspend the deregulated bus market and provide a franchised bus service.” Bus deregulation, introduced in 1986, means bus operators are free to cherry-pick the services they run to maximise profits and can set their own fares, timetables, and standards with no democratic oversight, added the campaigners.

Laura Fogg-Rogers, Chair of Winterbourne and Frome Valley Environmental Group, said: “Winterbourne in South Gloucestershire has seen our two regular buses completely axed, leaving many residents cut off from our nearest city for jobs and education. Public transport is an essential service for a civilised city and we have no hope of climate action without reliable and cheap alternatives to cars.

“We are calling on South Gloucestershire Council to champion this issue to the West of England Combined Authority, to support our most vulnerable residents. We need to reclaim our buses with local control through franchising.”

The open letter was read out at the council meeting last night. Campaigners hope that South Gloucestershire Council will also pass a motion in favour of bus franchising.
(Image: Emelia Melville)

Emilia Melville, WESTACT (West of England Shared Transport and Active Travel) coordinator, said: “Buses are an essential part of a functional public transport system, and have to be part of the picture if people are going to be less dependent on cars. They are also a lifeline for people who can’t use cars – whether because of age (young or old), for financial reasons, or due to a whole range of disabilities.

“I was at the WECA cabinet meeting where people from all over the West of England and beyond brought statements and petitions detailing the impact of bus cuts on people’s lives. Dan Norris said he was throwing the kitchen sink at trying to save bus routes, but ultimately he’s powerless to do very much about it without franchising.”

‘Appalling service’

Matthew Topham, better buses campaigner at We Own It, said: “The state of the region’s appalling bus services have reached new depths leading to passengers calling for First to have its licence to operate suspended. The terrifying truth is that the wild west free market introduced by deregulation in the 1980s means local councils have no meaningful power to bar operators from the region.

“That would be one power bus franchising would unlock — if operators fail to meet their obligations to the public, they can be banned from the region. That’s how we begin to reclaim our buses.”

A South Gloucestershire Council spokesperson said: “We recognise how important bus services are to our residents and we share the concerns campaigners have raised. Having a strong public transport network is essential for ensuring people are connected to their communities.

“The West of England Combined Authority (WECA) is the area’s Transport Authority and we are working closely with them, and with local bus service operators, to address the issues the whole region is currently experiencing in relation to bus services. A key element of this is WECA’s Bus Service Improvement Plan, which – thanks to significant government support – will see greater levels of investment in public transport, fares initiatives and new and enhanced bus services over the next few years.

“Only WECA has the power to enact franchising for the region. However, franchising is not a quick fix to the problems the region is facing and would be a long and costly process. Nevertheless, we would be open to discussions if this was something WECA wanted to explore.”

Metro Mayor Dan Norris said: “The buses aren’t working as well as people need them to work. Franchising is on the table, and remains under ongoing review but it’s not a quick-fix solution. The big issue we face on the buses right now is the serious bus driver shortage and areas with franchised models like Greater Manchester are grappling with exactly the same issue on driver shortages.”

Bristol City council has also been approached for a comment. Bus operator First Bus has repeatedly responded to complaints about unreliable service and says it is actively recruiting to try to address the staff shortages.

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