GM franchising moves a step closer

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Greater Manchester has reached a milestone in its ambitions to move to a franchised regime for its transport network, with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority recommending that the Mayor introduces bus franchising

Greater Manchester has moved a step closer to becoming the first city-region outside London to operate a fully franchised bus network. City leaders will meet later this month to consider the next step in its plans for an integrated transport system and the introduction of bus franchising across the city-region. Greater Manchester is the first city-region in the UK to use the Bus Services Act 2017 to reach the stage of deciding whether to franchise its network. If the decision is made to proceed with the proposed franchising scheme it would be the biggest change to Greater Manchester’s bus network since deregulation in 1986, and would result in Greater Manchester’s bus network being split up into three sections: North East, North West and South, with several franchises tendered in each.

Proponents of the scheme argue that as individual bus companies decide the routes, fares, timetables and standards, there is no coordination and limited oversight, and cite figures which show that since 1986, bus patronage fell by 45% from 350m to 194m in 2018, with a concurrent shrinkage of the bus network.

The latest report by Greater Manchester Combined Authority said that there are more than 150 different types of bus ticket, and that a single bus ticket can cost £4 compared to £1.55 in London, and often does not allow passengers to transfer between buses or other types of transport.

Under the proposed new regime, bus services – including routes, frequencies, fares and standards – would be brought under local control, with Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) saying it would coordinate the network based on what passengers need, coordinate investment, and allow it to integrate buses with the rest of transport network.

GMCA said that over 12,500 consultation responses were received in total on its proposals to change how buses are run. Of those who answered the question ‘To what extent do you support or oppose the introduction of the proposed franchising scheme’ or submitted a response via an organised campaign, 86% of responses to the first consultation period supported the franchising scheme. This dropped to 82% for the second consultation period. Consultation responses were independently managed and analysed by Ipsos MORI.

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 GMCA report also considers whether now is an appropriate time to make a decision on franchising, taking into account various other factors, and found that: ”There is substantial support for taking a decision on franchising now, from local authorities, academic institutions and the public. However, some have suggested a decision should be delayed until more is known on the impacts of Covid-19.”

Despite the uncertainty of the current situation, GMCA believes it has sufficient information for a decision to be taken with a good understanding of this uncertainty, and that the flexibility of the proposed franchising scheme would also work across a number of different scenarios and a range of outcomes. It added that further information becoming available on Covid-19 would not fundamentally alter the uncertainty around the pandemic or provide more evidence for decision-making.

The report will first be considered by the Housing, Planning and Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee on Friday 19 March, and then GMCA at a special meeting on Tuesday 23 March, where 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 made to proceed with the proposed bus franchising scheme, to make the transition to franchising as smooth as possible the proposed franchising scheme will be introduced in three phases, with one sub-area introduced each year between 2023 and 2025.

TfGM said that costs remain broadly the same, and around £135m would be needed to transition into the franchised system, expected to come from a combination of one-off local authority contributions, income from previous and future rises to the mayor’s precept and cash returned by the government under Greater Manchester’s devolution deal.

Stagecoach also confirmed that last month that it informed GMCA that it had submitted a court application for a judicial review of the Combined Authority’s consultation as a result of its failure to meet the required standards on proper process, evidence and analysis required by law.

Martin Griffiths, Stagecoach Chief Executive, said on 15 March: “We are disappointed at GMCA’s recommendation. We believe the Combined Authority conducted an unlawful process and a flawed consultation on proposals which do not properly reflect the fundamental and material changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“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 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.”