Leaders of Greater Manchester’s ten local authorities will meet later this month to decide whether to move forward with plans to reform the bus network in the city-region.
Following overwhelming public support for proposals in two consultations (held both before and after the coronavirus outbreak), Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) has published a report recommending the move to a franchising system.
Under current rules, routes, fares and timetables of bus services in Greater Manchester are decided by operators; however, the reform proposed by GMCA would allow the city-region to control the bus network based on passenger needs, with bus companies commissioned to run services, similar to how buses are operated in London. The change would make the city-region the first in the UK to use the Bus Services Act 2017 to regulate its bus network and make it locally accountable, allow for greater integration between bus, rail and tram services, and to ensure the network reaches areas of Greater Manchester that can most benefit from improved public transport.
Sir Richard Leese, Deputy Mayor of GMCA, said:
Buses are central to our public transport network, with three out of four journeys made by bus, but it has been clear for a long time that our buses could be better. We have now held consultation over two periods on a proposed franchising scheme and have asked for people’s views on the proposals in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. In both consultation periods, there were high levels of support for franchising and the benefits it would bring for the future of Greater Manchester’s buses.
“People, businesses and other organisations have overwhelmingly told us that they want change. They want buses that are easier to use, with services that connect to each other and other forms of public transport. They want simpler fares and tickets and they can also see the wider benefits of franchising for the city-region and our recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Greater Manchester has always been a trailblazing city-region; we’ve led the way in computing, music and engineering and now we could be the first city-region outside London to have our own fully franchised and locally accountable bus network.
“However, if franchising was to proceed, it would be a complex and long process – as the current bus network has been broken for over 30 years, it wouldn’t be fixed overnight. But it would deliver benefits over the longer term.
“It’s important to note no decision has been made at this stage. GMCA needs to consider the outcome of the consultation and decide if it wants to make the recommendation to the Mayor. Then the decision would be for the Mayor of Greater Manchester to make at a later date.”
The report and a suite of supporting documents will first be considered by the city-region’s Housing, Planning and Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee on Friday 19 March, and then GMCA at a special meeting on Tuesday 23 March, where Greater Manchester’s 10 local authority leaders will be asked to consider and decide whether to recommend the franchising scheme to the Mayor. The Mayor will then decide whether or not to proceed with the scheme at a later date, no earlier than 25 March. If the decision is reached to proceed with reforms, the changes to the bus network will be put in place in three phases from 2023-25.
Bus operators have actively campaigned in opposition to proposals, citing the increased burden franchising would place on city-region residents that do not use the network, proposing an alternative partnership arrangement during the first consultation. Commenting on the GMCA’s report in support of advancing the reforms, Martin Griffiths, Stagecoach CEO, said:
This is simply not the right time to be considering spending huge sums of money on a bus franchising scheme which does not meet the tests laid down in law.
“The proposed scheme also involves spending £135m on transitional costs alone without delivering any improved services for customers when at the same time multi-million-pound cuts are being considered to vital frontline public services.
“It is clear from a significant number of consultation responses that there is widespread concern among local taxpayers, businesses and other organisations about the sustainability of the franchising plans and the dangers of proceeding with them now.
“Our priority has always been to ensure we have a bus network that works for local communities, taxpayers, and the bus operators whose success supports the economy and employment in Greater Manchester.
“While we await the decision of the court, we would urge the Combined Authority to rethink its approach and pause its plans.
“We remain ready to work in partnership with the Combined Authority, as we have done throughout the pandemic, on alternative plans to stabilise and rebuild bus services, and ensure the region has a sustainable, high quality bus network for the long term.”