Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), which represents 10 metropolitan borough councils, including Wigan, are planning to improve our bus services. They are pushing to take bus control into local public ownership. The aim is that they will operate the bus routes as a service rather than a privately outsourced profit making commercial venture. This article provides an update on that journey so far (pun entirely intentional!). There are similar intentions in Merseyside too. As this may affect Garswood and Billinge, #winstanleywo also provides an update on this. Like to know more about changing Wigan’s bus services and how it affects others? Read on.
How We Got Where We Are Now
As far back as 1930 the Road Traffic Act 1930 stipulated that regional commissioners licence bus services. They set the bus, driver and route standards as well as frequencies and fares. In short it created local and publicly-owned operator monopolies where they operated. The services with less passengers were reliant on the subsidies. Such services include off peak or remoter areas. From the 1950s, local authorities increased funding to municipal operators to keep fares low and maintain service levels. Around the same time private car ownership was on the rise.
Progressing to 1986 the government, under Thatcher, deregulated bus operations. Local councils then lost the power to control services. The theory is that it would open competition to multiple private operators on the same route. The idea was to provide better operations while saving public money. As with many government initiatives, they did not consider the longer term outcome sufficiently. For the most part, competition was greatest on the more profitable routes. Private operators trimmed back services. They have also combined on less profitable routes. Eventually many weaker operators were bought out by the larger ones resulting into no competition on some routes. Local authorities had lost control of the routes, frequencies fares and service levels. Equally as import those authorities lost revenues to subsidise funding of the less profitable routes.
The bottom line is that services are not managed by the towns and cities councils that rely on those services. In fact decisions can be made by the private operators without the councils being involved in the rationale.
What’s Happened So Far with Changing Wigan’s Bus Services?
A Little Background
For quite some time, both Greater Manchester and Merseyside have been pushing for more direct control locally. Th point being to bring back some accountability and recognise buses are a service. It is often the vulnerable that are not able to drive for one reason or another that are suffering.
Indeed in 20 years of living in Winstanley, while service coverage now covers the newer housing, services have declined including but not limited to;
- combining multiple services into one (e.g. Hawkley and Winstanley / Highfield), the journey time is significantly longer.
- services are less frequent to Winstanley,
- fares have been catching up with taxi prices, particularly where multiple people are travelling together. Not great for the environment or traffic.
Greater Manchester Services
Burnham has made control and reform of Greater Manchester’s bus network a top priority for his second term as mayor. The desire is to create a London-style service in which local leaders have control over timetables, fares and ticketing. In March 2021 Burnham announced plans to take public control of Greater Manchester’s bus network by 2025.
In May 2021 bus operators Stagecoach and Rotala asserted GMCA’s decision-making process to bring back control was flawed. You may know Rotala better through their one of their local operations under the name Diamond North West. Greater Manchester recently defeated that legal challenge. The High Court’s Mr Justice Julian Knowles dismissed the legal challenge. He ruled that GMCA decision-making on “fundamental reform of bus services in one of the most populous regions of the country” was not “unlawful or irrational”.
Stagecoach and Rotala Objections
The bus operators’ legal challenge claimed that the GMCA and Burnham had acted “unlawfully”, relying on a “flawed” consultation for bus franchising during the Covid-19 pandemic. They said the consultation process failed to comply with the requirements of the Transport Act 2000. Under the act requires approvals for franchising schemes must include robust evidence. The GMCA responded that their decision-making process was lawful. They countered their conclusions were justified in time of uncertainties over future passenger numbers since Covid-19.
Burnham called the ruling “truly fantastic news”. He states it was a “green light for the north to retake control of its bus and public transport system. We know that this result is important not just for Greater Manchester, but for other city-regions too. We hope that this judgment today will pave the way for them to progress with their ambitions to bring buses under public control.”
Stagecoach goes on record to say it was “disappointed.” They added “It was our view that the process followed by Greater Manchester Combined Authority in assessing the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on its bus franchising plans did not meet those legal requirements. Nevertheless, we accept the decision of the court.” Rotala described the ruling as “extremely disappointing”. In a statement, it said: “The board still believes these decisions to be irrational and/or unlawful and is in the process of applying for permission to appeal the decision to the court of appeal.”
Other northern local authorities such as South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire, are tracking the High Court ruling.
Changing Wigan’s Bus Services – Garswood, Billing and Merseyside
Meanwhile, Liverpool City Region plans to franchise bus services across Merseyside have also progressed. They have asked the combined authority to confirm franchising as the preferred future model for running the city region’s bus network and services later this week.
If approved, the mayor’s vision for an integrated London-style transport system will move a step closer. He said the proposals would allow the authority to control fares and specify the network. The introduction of franchising would see the suspension of the deregulated bus market mentioned earlier in this article
Steve Rotheram – Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region said “Since the Thatcher government deregulated buses outside of London in the 1980s, services outside of the capital have suffered. ‘After years of painstaking work, the Combined Authority’s assessment into the future of our bus market is recommending franchising as its preferred option to be considered further. The rest of the country is watching the work we are doing here very closely.
We are one of the only areas leading the way in using new powers under the Bus Services Act to take greater control over public transport and ensure it is run in the interests of local people“.
He adds “Good public transport is vital for connecting people with each other and with opportunity, with people in our region overwhelmingly relying on the bus to get about. Thanks to the failed deregulation of the 1980s, too many bus services don’t work for the people who use them. I’m determined to fix that. Getting around our region should be quick, cheap and reliable – like it is in London. If it’s good enough for the capital, then it’s more than good enough for people in our region.”