Metro mayors are in the spotlight. The electorate is looking to them to make good on election promises and deliver an economic recovery that will enable their areas to put the pandemic behind them and power on to a more prosperous future. Buses have an important role to play in this process.
The Prime Minister also recognises the importance of buses to the country’s economic recovery and is prepared to offer financial carrots as well as sticks that will see subsidies withdrawn if mayors don’t make use of the options available under the 2017 Bus Services Act.
It’s a great opportunity. Not for decades has a government been so pro-bus. Since deregulation many ministers have been slow to understand the consequences and have wavered when it comes to making good the mistakes of the past. But now franchising is on offer and the need for local control of buses is accepted at the top of government.
So what’s it to be? EPSs are better than nothing but offer none of the game-changing potential of franchising. Superficial rebranding can be delivered but without the financial rewiring of franchising it will fail to resolve the issues deregulation caused while raising expectations that are not within the gift of city leaders to deliver.
In contrast franchising gives mayors real powers to deliver the social and economic connections which are viewed as essential by so many people after the pandemic. This is an opportunity to reverse decline, increase modal share and enhance mayoral reputations by delivering improvements that can be seen on every main road in a city.
Franchising works in London and, after choosing to franchise bus services, Greater Manchester will see similar benefits. Other metro mayors should now also take up the bus franchising powers unlocked by the Bus Services Act to ensure their cities are not left behind and they too can transform services and deliver lasting economic change.