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25.07.16

Manchester mayor deal would ‘collapse’ without bus franchising powers, says TfGM chair

Manchester’s bid for its own bus franchising powers is crucial to the city’s devolution, the chair of the Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) committee, Cllr Andrew Fender, told PSE.

The Bus Services Bill, which will allow combined authorities to establish Transport for London-style franchising bodies, was included in the most recent Queen’s Speech.

Almost immediately, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority announced that it would seek the devolved powers, and, as Cllr Fender (pictured right) told PSE, bus powers were always a crucial part of the negotiations that led to Greater Manchester receiving a devolution deal in exchange for accepting an elected mayor.

He said: “By a long margin, it’s the most important bit of that devolution deal. In fact, it’s so important to us that, because the timescales for the Citizen Devolution Bill, now Act, and the Bus Services Bill are not synchronised, we sought confirmation from the government that, now, if we don’t get the franchising provisions through the Bus Services Bill, then that would collapse the deal for the elected mayor.

“Some of us are not particularly fans of elected mayors, but to get the prospect of franchising powers is a price worth paying for having an elected mayor.”

The Bill was recently criticised during its first reading in the House of Lords for only applying to combined authorities, with peers warning that it is intended to force local authorities to accept elected mayors.

Cllr Fender suggested these complaints may be listened to, adding: “I think there may be some room at the margins for other places to get bus franchising powers incorporated in their devolution deals without an elected mayor, but that’s quite a way down the line. We had to have it and that’s why we went for it.”

He said that the powers were so important because bus services have been in decline since deregulation was introduced in the 1980s.

“Operators really have the power to do what they like,” he said, “without any real regard to the consequences for the local authorities that pay for some of the service and most particularly for the customers, the passengers.

“What we saw for all of the 30 years since deregulation, but particularly in the early years, was a rapid reduction in a number of services and a year-on-year real-terms hike in the fares, so a spiral of decline set in pretty much from day one.”

Cllr Fender argued the current bus services system is not just expensive for councils, but lacks transparency about spending, adding: “We don’t know where the 60-odd million pounds a year that we spend on concessionary travel goes, other than into the bottom line. “We don’t know where the 50 or so million a year that they get from the government on bus operators grant goes. What franchising does, [is] it enables you to see much more transparently what you get, what you’re buying for each pound that you put in, so it’s better for the taxpayer, it’s better for the farepayers and its better for the local transport authority.”

‘End of the party’ for bus companies

Cllr Fender added that the current system is particularly “unacceptable” given the financial pressures councils are facing elsewhere: “We have been having to step in to purchase to procure replacement services for those unprofitable or not-so-profitable services that are funded by the now very hard-pressed council tax payers, who are seeing whole areas of council services cut due to government funding restrictions.

“We can’t continue to be, in effect, feather-bedding bus service operators and their double-digit profit margins. It’s not over yet, but the end of the party is now in sight, and with bus franchising we have the opportunity to do something to put this right for everyone involved.”

He pointed out that in Manchester bus usage is “flatlining” despite the council’s investment and the fact that it remains the city’s most popular means of public transport. The councillor suggested part of the reason is because franchised services don’t always operate in the service of passengers.

“Typically, you might have someone who works in the daytime and the evenings, who would go to work on one of the big operators that happens to operate in their area during the day and then go to another operator, typically a small operator running a different service, that gets them home in the evening, charging different fares, running at different times. It’s just hugely complex,” he said.

Bus usage is in decline in most other parts of the country, but in London it has doubled since devolved powers were introduced.

Cllr Fender said TfGM has a range of plans for improving bus services with devolved powers, including smart ticketing that can be used on different means of transport, moving services to less popular routes, and introducing audio-visual displays on buses, in order to attract more passengers.

The organisation has already tried to introduce smart ticketing across the city’s Metrolink network, but these plans were cancelled after contractor Atos failed to deliver the necessary requirements, as reported in PSE’s sister title Rail Technology Magazine.

Cllr Fender said that Atos’ problems with smart ticketing were “not just that the technology’s complex, but applying the technology to the marketplace just rendered it virtually impossible”.

But he also recognised that franchising powers would make it easier for TfGM to manage its relationships with contractors in the future.

Fear of bus companies ‘watering down’ Bill in Parliament

Cllr Fender said that with cross-party support for the Bill, there “shouldn’t be a difficulty” in getting it onto the statute book.

However, he added: “We’re working hard at the moment to put the polish on the finer points and details of the Bill to make sure that it does deliver what we want and there aren’t any loopholes, any mechanisms brought in through the Parliamentary process to try to water it down.

“Clearly, it comes as no surprise to anyone that the big bus companies will be working to try to get that watering down, because they’re obviously concerned with protecting their profit margins, but this is much more than about individual companies’ profit margins.

“It’s about the service to the consumer, it’s about value for money for the taxpayer, and it’s about having a good and effective transport system for the wider economy.”

(Image c. TfGM)

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Comments

Adam Leishman   25/07/2016 at 14:52

Cllr Fender has identified many of the benefits of bus franchising. It is not just London but many other cities around the world that have seen the benefits of a model that gets the best out of Government and private operators. It's long overdue in this country and good to see that's about to change.

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