Bus franchising wins support of scrutiny councillors, but concerns remain over plans
Reporter: Niall Griffiths
Date published: 19 March 2021
Eamonn Boylan has stressed that the government’s bus strategy was now putting pressure on local transport authorities to set out how they want to change local bus services
Greater Manchester’s bid to take control over its bus network has passed the first hurdle after councillors in charge of scrutinising the plans pledged their support.
But concerns were raised about the length of time afforded to councillors to examine a ‘disturbing’ amount of paperwork days before the £134.5m scheme is expected to be signed off.
Mayor Andy Burnham will be recommended to approve the bus franchising proposals by leaders of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) on March 23.
This would give local authorities the power to set fares, timetables and routes instead of private bus companies, which would still run buses across the network.
However, the way the GMCA consulted on its plans is currently subject to legal challenge by bus operators Stagecoach and Rotala who say the process was ‘unlawful’ as it had not taken into account ‘fundamental changes’ brought on by the pandemic.
The rationale behind the judicial review applications has been questioned by Mr Burnham, who is expected to make a final decision on bus franchising no earlier than March 25.
The GMCA’s housing, planning and environment scrutiny committee was presented with almost 1,600 pages of reports outlining the rationale behind bus franchising, as well as how it would tie in with the government’s recently announced £3bn National Bus Strategy.
But the Conservative chair of the committee Councillor John Walsh said he would not be supporting the case for Greater Manchester to become the first place outside of London to have a regulated bus system since Margaret Thatcher introduced privatisation in 1986.
The Bolton councillor said: “I find it somewhat disturbing that we’ve had a review that started in 2017 that has had the effects of the pandemic and all the consequences of that, and we’re then faced with a paper which is 1,530 pages long, and only a week in which to consider and respond given the publication this week of the national strategy.
“I don’t understand the need for urgency, and why it has to be that we’re being asked to scrutinise such a lengthy document which is now going to have enormous financial consequences for the GMCA for so many years to come.
“I can’t support the proposal, I think it’s premature and the length of the report demands greater scrutiny and perusal.”
Eamonn Boylan, chief executive of the GMCA and TfGM, stressed that the government’s bus strategy was now putting pressure on local transport authorities to set out how they want to change local bus services, whether that was through franchising or partnerships.
Regional operators under the OneBus banner have been pressing the GMCA to enter into a partnership to improve the network instead of pursuing a franchising plan which they say provides no certainty on lower fares or more buses.
But transport bosses have insisted that franchising would provide better value for taxpayers’ money, with more than 80 per cent of responses to separate public consultations also showing support for the move.
Manchester Labour councillor Jill Lovecy told the committee: “It is already four years since we had the election of the Greater Manchester mayor and the promises about an integrated public transport system and doing something serious about buses.
“I really feel I want to endorse your strategy to go rapidly now, there is such a fit between what is happening at a national level and what we’ve already worked on.
“We would be really shooting ourselves in the foot if we were to delay responding to the national bus strategy.
“For many people living in Greater Manchester this is a very untransparent system.”
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