Public meeting saw Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, weigh in on the side of re-regulating the GM bus system in a franchised, London like model.
Greater Manchester’s buses would be better value for money, more convenient and accountable if publicly controlled, an audience heard at a panel discussion organised by the Better Buses for Greater Manchester campaign group on Wednesday at the Manchester Art Gallery.
Leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, in his welcoming remarks said that a regulated, franchised system would “give better value for money” for Mancunians. Rather than seeing council tax go up, he explained, analysis conducted by Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) had shown that “compared to the current system of private control, franchising would be 10% more efficient. That means for the same money the council could provide a 10% improved service.”
Leese also stated that this was a real opportunity for Mancunians to take control of how their city was run. In 2014 Manchester City Council agreed to elect a mayor on condition that the city could re-regulate its bus network through franchising, Leese said. “This is about implementing the devolution agreement and delivering a clear message,” Leese stated. “This is not the time to be silent.”
The public consultation on bus reform in Manchester opened on 14 October and runs to midnight 8 January, 2020. The “Doing Buses Differently” event on Wednesday saw a panel of activists and councillors arguing that there was an urgent need to re-regulate Greater Manchester’s bus network.
The panel consisted of Richard Leese; Eve Holt, a Labour councillor in Chorlton ward; Elaine Unegbu, Chair of the Age Friendly Manchester Board; and Kat Wright of the tenancy union, Acorn. The panel made a case for a London-style franchised system for Greater Manchester, explained how the consultation process worked and how members of the public could make a response.
The two leading options for the GM Mayor Andy Burnham to choose from once the consultation is over are the franchising model, similar to Londons, or a slightly tweaked version of the current private control called the partnership model.
Better Buses GM and associated campaign groups, support re-regulation through the franchising model. OneBus, which represents 18 different bus operators across GM, opposes significant re-regulation and supports the partnership model.
Other speakers emphasised the need to re-regulate Greater Manchester’s buses as a way of making the system work for those demographic groups who relied on it the most. Elaine Unegbu, Chair of the Age Friendly Manchester Board, highlighted the importance of buses for the elderly. Affordable and convenient buses “motivate people to get active and involved,” she said, making them “visible” to their communities and creating “a sense of belonging.”
Eve Holt, a Labour councillor in Chorlton ward, said that the bus system needed to be “designed for people” who most relied on it. She told the audience that women were 56% more likely to use buses than men, and that bus companies were not designing buses to cater for families.
Kat Wright of the tenancy union, Acorn, emphasised to the audience that tenants were directly affected by the way the buses were working, saying: “If you’re struggling with rent, you’re also probably struggling to afford public transport… Acorn supports regulation [franchising]. Everyone has a right to safe, regular and affordable public transport.”
“Our members are tenants who are affected by rogue landlords and the housing crisis in Greater Manchester,” Wright said in a statement to The Meteor. “They are also affected by bus prices, delays and routes which are not fit for purpose.”
In the North West, on average £18.4 million had been paid to shareholders every year over the last ten years, while eight million miles of routes have been cut from Greater Manchester’s network since 2010.
Currently, local authorities have little control over commercial bus services. Private bus operators only run services if they make a profit and can charge passengers whatever they want. Routes that are considered socially essential but not profitable for the bus companies are subsidised with public money, budgeted at £27.6 million for 2019-20, to make them profitable.
Under a franchised London-style regulated network, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) would have planning powers to coordinate the network and demand bus companies follow certain standards through contracts. Franchising also offers greater integration of the bus, tram and train network and the ability to use one ticket, probably an adapted version of the Get me there smart card, to ride on any bus on any route, regardless of the company running it.
“We’re delighted to hear that all the GMCA leaders have agreed wholeheartedly to take better, publicly controlled buses to the next stage, consultation,” Pascale Robinson of the Better Buses for Greater Manchester campaign said prior to the event.
She continued, “private bus companies have been showing their true colours. From threatening legal action, to spinning misinformation about astronomical costs for taxpayers, which independently audited TfGM figures show to be inaccurate.”
“Private bus companies are leading project fear because they know that the people of Greater Manchester want better, affordable, publicly controlled buses. Bus companies haven’t volunteered to deliver a good network for the past thirty years, so why would we trust them now?”
If Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, makes a final decision to go for public control at the end of the process, it will be the first time any local authority has done so since deregulation of all buses outside of London in the mid 1980s.
The Doing Buses Differently – proposed franchising scheme for Greater Manchester – consultation can be accessed here