Taking back control the smart way

In a blaze of publicity, Steve Rotheram, metro mayor of Liverpool, recently hailed 'a new era for public transport' following a historic vote by the city's combined authority to franchise buses.

It was an unashamedly political decision, made on the eve of the Labour Party's Conference in Liverpool. It follows Manchester's launch of its 'Bee Network' and it was followed within days by an announcement that West Yorkshire will begin consulting on franchising.

So will these steps lead to what the city mayors promise – a frequent, reliable, affordable transport system?

Franchising has a major role to play in metro areas. But this comes with caveats – it requires substantial funding, and it would be a mistake to allow a false economic narrative to develop against private capital. Private enterprise has a crucial role to play in the delivery of both franchised and commercially provided bus networks in the UK.

Franchising is often described as 'London-style' bus operation. That's shorthand for a level of service with a frequency that makes people willingly leave their car keys at home. London has been franchising its buses since the 1990s and it's worked - Londoners take the bus 230 times a year, versus just 80 journeys per person elsewhere in the country.

There is a 'but' though. London has invested close to a billion pounds in public money each year to sustain such a high level of service and that is alongside decades of major capital investments in bus lane priority, congestion charging, and bus decarbonisation.

It would be a gross over-simplification to suggest that franchising is a panacea for all ills. Commercial bus services thrive in large towns and smaller cities around the country. It is a combination of worsening traffic congestion and Treasury austerity eating into local authorities' ability to subsidise non-commercial routes that has damaged buses in the last 15 years.

For buses to flourish over the next decade, city politicians must boldly continue beyond the politically 'safe' option to franchise buses and take consistent steps to prioritise buses in traffic and allocate more road space to buses than to the private car. This action is what truly will level up travel in this country, offering a better option to all. With more people taking the bus, a virtuous circle of fare revenue and investment unfolds. Making the bus attractive to all will consign the 'war on motorists' narrative to the history books.

There is, occasionally, a tendency to conflate franchising with public ownership – or with a revival of municipal bus companies. This is a mistake.

It makes little sense to pretend that cities have the capacity to own and operate buses over and above the private sector and equally false to suggest that this would be desirable. There's a need to be realistic about what risks sensibly sit on the balance sheets of local authorities. And a spirit of competition encourages a focus on performance and innovation to support continuous improvement. UK plc is excellent at the delivery of certain services - library services are a wonderful example - but the private sector has scale advantages that a city does not.

I witnessed firsthand the delivery of the first tranche of Manchester bus franchising in Bolton and Wigan by the Go-Ahead Group. A team of over 200 highly experienced individuals came together from as far away as Penzance and Newcastle - all to support their extended family with the launch of the Bee Network. We worked overnight, undertaking shift work. We did this as we believe in the supporting bus industry as a whole, as a single entity, regardless of whose logo sits on our hi-vis jackets.

Public sector influence is possible without ownership. Through viable performance incentives- similar to London's regime – cities can reward reliability, punctuality and good customer service. It is easier to incentivise and penalise private operators than it is to press for changes within an arm's length government owned entity.

Other political campaigns have made calls to 'take back control' – with benefits that have, at best, been debatable. On buses, let's not make the same mistake by getting too tied up in ideology. Working together in a collaborative approach is generally going to offer the best economic and social outcome for all.

Peter Robinson is Group Business Development Director of The Go-Ahead Group, one of the UK's largest bus operators