Franchise Bristol buses! Medact Bristol urge by-election candidates to take a stance

Medact Bristol health workers and local campaigners smiling at the camera in a group photo. They hold three placards with cartoon trains that read: "Greater Manchester leading the way", "West Yorkshire powering ahead", "West of England falling behind"

On Saturday 10th February, members of Medact Bristol, complete with scrubs and stethoscopes, set up a “transport clinic” outside Kingswood shopping centre, joined by local campaign groups “Kingswood Climate Action”, Reclaim Our Buses and the West of England Mobility Hub.

Our stall was designed to look like a medical clinic aimed to highlight the links between public transport and health. The proposed treatment? Public control of buses. We invited members of the Kingswood community to explore their experiences of Bristol buses and discuss the possibility of bus franchising, which would help to put the service back into public hands and address many of the glaring problems.

Community members echoed the same feelings that recent reports show: the bus system in the West of England is in crisis. Routes are becoming more expensive, dozens of routes are being cut and people are being left in the rain for buses that never show up. This increases social isolation, especially among older and marginalised communities, limiting access to essential services, leaving many, including healthcare professionals, struggling to get to work.

Health workers and campaigners talk to members of the public at a stall on a high street. A banner attached to a tree reads 'Bring our busses back under public control'

Bus franchising represents an exciting opportunity to reverse some of the ill effects of the deregulation of buses in the 1980s. Franchising means that bus operators are contracted by the local transport authority, and are therefore publicly regulated. It’s been highly successful in other European cities, for example, Greater Manchester Combined Authority embraced bus franchising in 2023 after research showed that the net economic and social benefits of franchising (£234m) greatly outweighed the partnership offered by the bus companies (£80m). A reliable public transport system is a critical component of the just transition. 

Efficient, reliable buses are essential for accessing employment, with 2.5 million people in the UK using buses to get to work every day. High quality and accessible public transport is critical for us to achieve health equity and health justice, and to live in a society where everyone has the opportunity to move and access services, employment, education, and loved ones. 

A heart-shaped piece of paper with handwriting that reads: "Buses need to be a reliable alternative to cars. I want people to use buses so they don't have to rely on polluting cars. My neighbours don't use buses because they are unreliable. – Peggy"

“Reclaim Our Buses” is a Bristol-based campaign group who campaign for public regulation of buses to allow for a sustainable transport infrastructure that provides for everybody. They are championing bus franchising as it would allow for streamlining of services (rather than multiple operators competing for customers), better connectivity due to less profitable (but no less essential) routes being subsidised by other routes, and a “one ticket system” that would allow for integration of bus use at the individual level. 

We health workers at Medact Bristol see public transport as a health issue. In addition to the reasons above, better bus provision would likely reduce people’s reliance on cars, cutting carbon emissions and improving air pollution which has a detrimental impact on chronic diseases like asthma

While preparing for the by-election on the 15th February, the Kingswood candidates were contacted and urged to state their position on public control of buses. Both the Labour and Lib Dem candidates expressed their support, with Damien Egan, the new MP for Kingswood, stating that “Labour will reform our broken bus system and hand power and control over services to local communities”. Now that he’s won the seat, as a community we will continue to hold him accountable for this promise!

In the background people gather around the transport clinic stall. In the foreground, a poster taped to a tree reads "Reclaim our Buses West of England"