Calls for Birmingham buses to be controlled by the council - here’s why

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Two Birmingham city councillors say bus control in the West Midlands should be taken from private companies and handed over to local authorities

Calls have been made to end cancellations, delays, and unsafe conditions on Birmingham buses by bringing them into public control.

Two Birmingham city councillors are calling for local authorities to determine which bus routes run and when, as well as other key decisions like the cost of fares.

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Buses are the only mode of public transport across for 25 per cent of the West Midlands population. Speaking at a full council meeting last week (Tuesday, June 13) Lib Dems Zaker Choudhry (South Yardley) and Colin Green (Sheldon) pressed the chamber to support their motion for the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) to “take back control” of the bus network.

Coun Green said: “Buses are too infrequent, don’t interconnect well and are not reliable enough. They don’t go from where you are to where you want to go. Too often I hear stories of people being late for work because a bus didn’t turn up or was so late they missed their connection. If we are to fix bus services, dare I say it, we need to ‘take back control’?”

Seconding the motion, Coun Choudhry said bus journeys were declining with 320 million in 2010 decreasing to 260 million in 2018. He added that users were turned off by “cigarette-stubbed chairs, graffitied windows, and gum on [seats]” and antisocial behaviours like smoking and swearing.

Both denounced “long”, “unreliable”, and “infrequent” services  and insisted that they discourage car drivers from using greener options citing some commutes by bus which can be two-to-three times as long as by car.

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The WMCA is currently assessing if it should take over the running of the buses from private companies by shifting to a ‘bus franchising’ model where the authority makes the decisions while bus companies operate services. Birmingham Labour want this process accelerated, proposing that it should be “expedited” and the WMCA should “implement franchising as soon as possible”.

The group went further to call for the government to allow English councils to set up their own bus companies. The Greens agreed and called on Westminster to reduce single bus fares (currently at £2 and due to go up to £2.50 in November) to £1.

The Green party also pushed to work with the WMCA to improve “patchy at best” suburban routes. Tory Timothy Huxtable (Hall Green South) suggested waiting before acting to determine if going public is the right option. The chamber voted in favour of calling for publicly-run buses, council-owned bus companies, and to lobby Westminster for £1 bus fares.

Birmingham busBirmingham bus
Birmingham bus | National Express West Midlands

What has Transport for West Midlands said about the proposals for councils to run bus services?

The WMCA, which oversees Transport for West Midlands (TfWM), launched an investigation into the pros and cons of the potential move earlier this year.

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Known as ‘bus franchising’, the model would give the WMCA full control of scheduling routes and setting fares while it pays private companies to operate services.

When a study into the control of buses in the West Midlands was launched last year, Mayor Andy Street said nothing has been ruled out after “a full assessment of options” was being investigated for the future of bus services in the West Midlands

What have climate campaigners said about the publicly run buses in Birmingham proposals?

Climate action group Possible is one organisation promoting franchising which its website claims will ensure buses are run in the “public’s best interest”. Possible argues profits made from busier bus routes can subsidise quieter ones, many of which have been, or are at risk of being cut.

Possible’s car-free Birmingham campaigner Sandra Green told the local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) buses are a “lifeline” for many people. She added: “But services can get cut or reduced if not profitable enough because the system is dominated by private bus companies.

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“We want the council to have control over buses – like they have in London – so that services can be designed for thousands of people to get to school, work, health centres, green spaces, family, shops, etc. Frequent, affordable buses are essential for people to get around without needing a car, so it’s good for tackling climate change as well.”

Possible is supporting community union Acorn Birmingham’s ‘Take Back our Buses’ campaign launched earlier this year. To drum up support they’ve been out speaking to residents in different wards across the city, asking their views and getting signatures for a petition.

Acorn Birmingham Co-chair Kay said: “Private companies are only focused on profit. They are taking buses off routes and this is forcing people to look at alternative travel, to stand for large amounts of time, to wait around and then they are not even certain they will get on the bus because of the large queues.

“After speaking with residents in [Shard End] over the weekend people in our communities are unhappy with the way the service is running and are in agreement that bus franchising will be for the best. There needs to be a system which meets the needs of the passengers and the community and franchising the buses will do that.”

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What have West Midlands bus companies said about proposals to bring buses under public control?

West Midlands bus companies have spoken out about the possibility of being brought under public control amid growing frustration with cuts and delays. In late 2022 the WMCA entered into a ‘partnership’ with operators in efforts to improve the beleaguered services but a potential next step is ‘bus franchising’.

Different to full public ownership, franchising would see the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) – where Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) sits – decide routes, fares and other key aspects of delivery.

Private bus operators, like National Express, would bid to run the WMCA’s services and have to comply with its requirements, facing penalties where failures occur. Campaigners in the region are in favour of the move, as is Birmingham City Council which voted to call for the WMCA to franchise “as soon as possible” at full council.

This happened in 2022 in Greater Manchester after Mayor Andy Burnham decided to franchise. Companies Rotala and Stagecoach challenged his decision, losing their case. Rotala (which owns Diamond Buses) chose to appeal this decision but lost and Travel for Greater Manchester’s bus network will launch in September. So what do bus companies in the West Midlands say?

National Express West Midlands

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The company running the most services in the region by far is National Express West Midlands which operates 93% of buses. A spokesperson for the company said: “We share TfWM’s goal of a seamless, integrated transport network that serves customers and communities across our region. We will continue to work in partnership to provide efficient and great value bus services.”

Rotala PLC

A spokesperson for Rotala said the company was “open minded” and “recognised the merits of both systems”. They added: “Historically we have preferred a more commercial model, due to the benefits it brings to investing in the business, both people and assets. That being said, we recognise that any model needs to work for all parties.”

The spokesperson explained the company had chosen to review the Manchester combined authority’s decision to go public because it felt the public body’s financial assessments did not accurately reflect what they expected would happen.

They continued: “Since then, the [Department for Transport] has granted [Transport for Greater Manchester/ Greater Manchester Combined Authority] greater funding as all parties have recognised there is a material substantial shortfall. Therefore our analysis was correct despite being right, and still losing the [case]. It is difficult to see based upon our experience why we would ever appeal another decision.”

Stagecoach Midlands

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“Bus services bring great value to the West Midlands region and as an operator we know how important it is for bus services to be reliable and offer good value for money to our customers. TfWM and operators, including Stagecoach, already have an established enhanced partnership in place across the West Midlands that has already seen many improvements and benefits delivered for bus users.

“Work is continuing within that partnership to deliver on other objectives to deliver further improvements to make buses more reliable, easier to use and offer better value for money as there is a shared objective for the delivery of better bus services.

“Franchising of bus services does not in itself solve the frustrations of bus passengers such as late arriving buses, missed connections or anti-social behaviour on the network, which in many cases result from incidents and events outside the control of the operator.

“This is why we believe that continuing to work in partnership where there are shared ambitions and incentives will ultimately deliver more for bus users. This needs to be supported with a long-term vision and funding package and we look forward to continuing to work with TfWM, WMCA, national government and other operators in the partnership.

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“However, we recognise and respect the right of local authorities to identify the best regulatory framework for their region. Whether through our preferred model of partnership or franchising we will continue to support WMCA in delivering bus services in the West Midlands.”

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