New bus franchising consultation gets approval

Date published: 30 November 2020


Greater Manchester’s plans to bring the local bus network into public ownership have been approved for further public consultation to consider the effects of Covid-19.

The combined authority wants a London-style franchising system costing £134.5m which would give them control over fares, timetables and routes – instead of private bus companies.

But questions have been asked around the timing and financial implications for both residents and councils given the ongoing financial impact of the pandemic.

Leaders have argued that bus reform is needed now more than ever as part of a bid to drive public transport usage back up to pre-pandemic levels.

Bus operators are still pushing for partnership with Greater Manchester, and they will be among the consultees of the latest public poll planned from December 2 to January 29, 2021.

The combined authority met on Friday (27 November) to give unanimous support to the consultation, which will take into account the ‘severe’ impacts of Covid-19 as set out in a new report.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham was supposed to make a decision on the plans in March this year only for it be delayed by lockdown.

However, the meeting heard concerns from Councillor David Greenhalgh, the Conservative leader of Bolton Council, that the financial implications had changed dramatically ‘in a Covid world’.

Bus franchising requires £78m from the government, with the rest of the funding coming from council tax and business rates collected locally.

Taxpayers, who already pay £3 towards bus reform as part of the mayoral precept within their council tax bill, could end up paying an extra £18.20 by the end of the transition to the new system in 2025/26.

Councillor Greenhalgh said: “In Bolton we are completely committed to see reform in the buses, and I realise and accept that doing nothing also has costing implications.

“This is a very difficult decision, but I am very, very concerned at the timing of this.

“If we do not get [government] funding, the level of precept will be a burden for residents at a time when all our local budgets, and residents’ pockets, will be under pressure.”

Councillor Sean Fielding, leader of Oldham Council, told the meeting that large amounts of public money was already being spent subsidizing the existing network to maintain routes that would have otherwise been cut.

He added: “If patronage remains unpredictable, in order to fund services more public money will have to be put in in the future.

“Whether we do it through the regulated market, or continue with the existing commercial market, it’s still something that costs the public purse quite a lot of money.

“The judgement for people responding to this consultation is in return for all that money that goes into the bus network, regardless of the system in which we operate, do we want more control or do we want to continue with a system with very little control?”

If approved by the mayor next spring, Greater Manchester would become the first in the UK to bring back regulation since Margaret Thatcher privatised all bus networks outside of London in 1986.

Niall Griffiths, Local Democracy Reporter

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