The West Midland Combined Authority is to investigate the prospect of adopting bus franchises across its region, though remains cautious about its implementation. At a transport scrutiny sub-committee in early February, Transport for West Midlands’ Head of Network Transformation Steve Hayes outlined some challenges that franchising could face. He said: “I liken this to getting a new computer games console for Christmas and then not having any money to buy any games. It’s all very well having the powers to do some of this stuff but, actually, we need to think about how will we fund it going forward? We need to think about who owns the fleet and who owns the depots and actually, if we were to go out and start asking operators to bid for contracts today, there’s only about one operator in the region who will be able to bid for anything substantial.”
However, the decision to commence a bus franchising assessment was supported by the WMCA board in January last year when risks to the future of the region’s bus delivery were noted. Consultants have been hired to support the assessment, which will run until June next year, and to help ensure that expertise around bus regulation is available to avoid potential legal challenges by operators if franchising is pursued, as happened in Greater Manchester following the decision to pursue franchising there. The West Midlands Combined Authority currently has in place an Enhanced Partnership, which has included commitments to freeze bus fares for three years from April 2022 and simplifying bus tickets to encourage more users.
Councillor Hayes cautioned that although there there is lots which could be done in partnership, “delivering some of those things on the ground is proving quite challenging. But that doesn’t mean we give up; we’re still working with our operators because they know if we can’t deliver through the partnership, we have the opportunity to deliver through franchising.”