Bringing Manchester's Buses Back
Greater Manchester is attempting to take control of its bus network and bring it back under public control. Over 30 years of deregulation have contributed to shrinking usage figures, higher fares and inconsistent services. Mayor Andy Burnham has just decided to go ahead with the proposal to franchise the region’s buses, but you may have some questions if you don’t actively enjoy reading papers on transport policy. What’s wrong with our buses? What regulation is being proposed? Has it worked elsewhere?
Not Very Magic Buses: Deregulation and its Consequences
Bus services, amongst other forms of public transport, were deregulated by the Thatcher government in 1986 with the implementation of the 1985 Transport Act. This entailed the abolition of road service licensing and the introduction of market competition on local bus services. Whilst the idea behind this was that competition would lead to better results, it has instead accompanied the growth of local private monopolies: five major operators control 70% of the national market. This has allowed existing operators to set high prices for passengers whilst providing worse quality service for those who live away from more profitable routes.
To see this in motion here in our city region, you only need to contrast getting a bus on Oxford Road with getting a bus essentially anywhere else in Greater Manchester. Since deregulation, GM bus usage has decreased by 40%, whilst doubling over the same time period in London, where buses were never forcefully deregulated. This has coincided with the disappearance of 3,000 bus routes across England since 2010, as a result of cuts to local authority funding. Decreases in bus usage aren’t simply the natural progression of things, as some commentators have suggested, but rather a direct outcome of mismanagement and the prioritisation of profit over providing for ordinary people.
There is also a distinct impact on socio-economic inequalities, as people in the lowest income bracket on average make 206% more trips by bus than those in the highest. In GM, 31% of households have no access to a car. High bus fares and disappearing routes disproportionately impact those who rely on them most.
After years of organising and activism, groups such as Better Buses GM, UNISON and ACORN, in staunch opposition to this trend, have met with increasingly receptive messaging from Metro Mayor Andy Burnham, laying the crucial groundwork for a change in direction.
The Proposal As It Stands
The plan to re-regulate GM’s buses will attempt to directly confront these issues of affordability and reliability. In the proposed plan, private operators would still provide bus services. However, Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) would coordinate the service and contract operators themselves. The Combined Authority would have oversight over timetabling, setting routes, and controlling fares.
The proposal also accompanies GMCA’s plan to integrate bus services with other transport types such as rail and tram, through the ‘Our Network’ framework. Aspiring to a “London style” public transport environment in the region, Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) details a plan for an integrated daily cap on what a public transport user can spend, regardless of which modes of transport they use and how often they use them. The manifesto from TfGM requests further devolution of political and fiscal powers, to allow GMCA to more actively shape the region’s future services. With significant regional disparities in transport investment between London and the rest of the UK - 2.5 times more than the national average - this demand is sensible and should be strongly supported.
It seems as if both the local and national mood is shifting in support of this request. Various consultations with the people of Greater Manchester have found a high level of public support for the proposal, and the plan has passed the first stage of scrutiny by local councillors. Also important to highlight is that this move is largely endorsed by central government, with the 2017 Bus Services Act extending bus franchising powers to Combined Authorities around the country.
A Case to Work from: Nottingham
Whilst private operators have criticised the £135 million cost of the franchising proposal, and some including Stagecoach have even mounted legal challenges to the plan, there are successful templates elsewhere in England which suggest that GMCA is heading in the right direction.
Nottingham managed to retain 82% public ownership of its buses in the wake of the 1985 Transport Act, by running its main operator, Nottingham City Transport (NCT), as an ‘arm’s length’ body. As a result, the city has managed to avoid the problems described above, maintaining high punctuality and value for money, as well as increasing bus usage. Whilst GM’s potential franchising is less ambitious than this scale of public ownership, it is a step towards rejecting the failed deregulation experiment.
The consultation process is complete and things are very much underway, with Andy Burnham already announcing his support for the proposal last week. However, the contest over how our buses should run extends beyond the franchising process. Go North West drivers are currently striking against ‘hire and re-fire’ practices in the company, shining a light on the weak employee protections afforded to those at the centre of this re-regulation process. The battle for buses is highly political and far from over, central as it is to the city region's route to redressing regional inequalities.