Greater Manchester reaches next step in bus reform journey as it prepares to consult on impact of Covid-19

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Greater Manchester is preparing to hold a further consultation on its proposals to reform the bus market following work to understand the potential impact of Covid-19

At a meeting on Friday 27 November, Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) will be asked to give the go-ahead to a consultation on the potential impacts of Covid-19 on both Greater Manchester’s bus market and its proposed franchising scheme.

This follows an earlier consultation, held between October 2019 and January 2020, on the introduction of the proposed franchising scheme. A final decision on the scheme was planned for spring 2020, but this was delayed due to the impact of Covid-19.

Reform of the bus market is a key part of ‘Our Network’, Greater Manchester’s 10-year plan for a world-class, integrated public transport network, that it says will make getting around the city-region easy, accessible and affordable. Our Network is part of its Transport Strategy 2040, the city-region’s long-term plan for transport with simplified ticketing across different modes of transport, enabling people to move around quickly and easily.

Buses are a vital part of Greater Manchester’s public transport system and throughout the Covid-19 pandemic they have become even more essential. 75% of public transport journeys made in Greater Manchester, both before and during the pandemic, are by bus and they continue to be a critical link to jobs and essential services.

Currently in Greater Manchester the bus companies decide the routes, frequencies, fares and standards, and GMCA says that there is no coordination and limited oversight. Where bus companies decide not to run services, where necessary the public sector pays to fill in the gaps.Under franchising, bus services would be brought under local control. GMCA would coordinate the bus network based on the services passengers need and would also coordinate investment in the bus market. Bus operators would be contracted by GMCA to run the services.

Over 8,500 individuals and organisations from across Greater Manchester and beyond responded to the previous consultation, with eight-out-of-10 respondents, who answered the relevant question, supporting the proposed franchising scheme.

In June, GMCA noted the results of the consultation and asked that, before a final decision was made, Transport for Greater Manchester produce a Covid-19 Impact Report considering how the pandemic had affected the bus reform process.

Before Covid-19, bus usage was already falling in Greater Manchester, one of the reasons why GMCA was considering the proposed franchising scheme.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on bus usage with passenger levels dropping by around 50%. However, bus patronage did recover more quickly than other modes of transport during the pandemic, demonstrating how vital bus services are to those who rely on buses to access work, especially the 30% of households who do not have a car.

If bus usage remains low and nothing is done to reform the bus market, GMCA says services may be further reduced, which may mean the public sector will need to provide more funding to keep essential services running, especially for Greater Manchester’s poorest and most vulnerable who depend on the bus network. It argues that would mean the public sector paying more proportionally towards the bus network whilst still having no control and limited oversight.

Fewer bus services could also lead to more people driving, increasing congestion and pollution and hampering economic growth.

The Covid Impact Report carried out by TFGM, confirmed that despite the impact of Covid-19, GMCA would still be best placed to plan and coordinate the city-region’s bus network to meet passengers’ needs and the proposed franchising scheme is still the best way to achieve Greater Manchester’s long-term ambition for an integrated public transport network.

Under franchising, bus services would be brought under local control and GMCA would coordinate the bus network based on the services passengers need and would also coordinate investment in the bus market.

However, the proposed franchising scheme would mean more of the financial responsibility and risk would belong to GMCA and the public sector. The potential longer-term impact of Covid-19 on bus usage may also mean GMCA is faced with difficult choices about the network to manage this financial risk and this may impact on the revenue GMCA would receive under franchising.

Overall, the Report found that the proposed franchising scheme would still be affordable and still represent value for money. If approved by GMCA, the consultation will be on the conclusions of the Covid-19 Impact Report and whether the proposed franchising scheme should change. It would take place between Wednesday 2 December 2020 and Friday 29 January 2021.

Following the consultation the responses will be independently analysed and reported to GMCA, who will consider the responses alongside the outcome of the previous consultation.

The outcome of both consultations would then be considered as part of the final decision by the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, on whether to implement the proposed franchising scheme. The decision is anticipated to take place in spring 2021.

If a franchised bus network was introduced, it would take place in several phases. Greater Manchester would coordinate the bus network and contract bus companies to run the services, with any profit being reinvested in the buses. This, GMCA argues, would enable the city-region to develop a more integrated, multimodal public transport network that can meet the demands of both passengers and the city-region’s economy.

Commenting on the GMCA announcement, Martin Griffiths, Stagecoach Chief Executive, said: “The pandemic has had a significant impact on all public transport networks across the country, regardless of how these systems are structured. The key lesson has been the positive impact from government, local authorities and public transport operators working in partnership to deliver the vital services that customers and communities need in very challenging circumstances.

“We believe there is a major opportunity to build on this strong collaboration to put in place new Recovery Partnerships to rebuild bus networks and attract passengers back. These would provide the framework, funding and flexibility to ensure bus networks coming out of the pandemic meet the changing needs of local communities, get people back to work, and maximise the power of buses to drive a green recovery.

“Our priority before and throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has been to provide safe, high quality and accessible public transport built around the needs of local people. We will continue to work constructively with stakeholders in Greater Manchester and elsewhere to deliver the best and most sustainable bus networks for communities for the long-term.”

Stagecoach views the proposal as a “major opportunity to build on this strong collaboration to put in place new Recovery Partnerships to rebuild bus networks and attract passengers back.” STAGECOACH