Protesting bus passengers wore masks of napping politicians as they demanded the region’s leaders bring buses back under public control. The protesters gathered outside a West of England Combined Authority meeting on Friday (March 17th) saying politicians were “asleep at the wheel”.

The masks included Bristol mayor Marvin Rees, West of England metro mayor Dan Norris, South Gloucestershire Council leader Toby Savage, and Bath and North East Somerset Council leader Kevin Guy. Campaigners called on the political leaders to explore bus franchising.

All other Labour-led combined authorities are already exploring bus franchising as a solution to fix long-standing problems with struggling bus networks. Transport for London has also used bus franchising for decades, with passengers receiving much better quality service in the capital than elsewhere in the country.

Matthew Topham, from Reclaim Our Buses, said: “The Metro Mayor [Dan Norris] is dodging his duty to investigate what could be an essential change for the region. Only by starting the special legal process can he assess the commercial data he needs from operators to see if franchising would be a net cost or benefit.”

Last week Mr Norris blamed South Gloucestershire Council as an obstacle to bus franchising, as he claimed the council “doesn’t want franchising” nor the powers for the combined authority to charge a precept on council tax bills, as every other combined authority in England can do. But Cllr Savage later responded that he was in favour of exploring franchising.

Mr Topham added: “His excuse of lacking precepting powers is a distraction: he can’t know if precepting is needed until franchising has been formally assessed. Nationally, Labour has said that it is making bus franchising a key plank in its local election strategy across England. So why is Norris failing his party’s message?”

Bus franchising would see the West of England Combined Authority design, integrate and coordinate the bus network. Operators, like First Bus, would only be allowed to operate in the region if they won a contract specifying fares, routes and standards set by Mr Norris.

The government gave combined authorities in England the powers to implement bus franchising in 2017, and Greater Manchester is about to launch its first franchised buses later this year. And Labour has promised to roll out franchising powers to all local authorities across England if they win the next general election, not just in combined authorities.

Buses in Bristol have gone from bad to worse in recent months with many services axed and frequencies reduced. First Bus recently said it was making progress in recruiting new drivers, amid a dire shortage, and some main routes will see higher frequencies from April. A new dial-a-ride service, called West Link, is also launching next month for cut-off rural areas.

Alex Seabrook