Could more of the UK’s bus services be brought under public control like Greater Manchester’s bus network?

The whole of Greater Manchester will have a joined-up, publicly-run transport system by 2025, but could it happen elsewhere too?
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The bus network in Greater Manchester will be brought back into public control for the first time in decades.

The planned £135m franchise model will mean that fares, routes and timetables will be set by local authorities, rather than private companies.

The move will see the region become the first area outside London to have a regulated bus system since the 1980’s.

Could more of the UK’s bus services be brought under public control like Greater Manchester’s bus network? (Photo: Shutterstock)Could more of the UK’s bus services be brought under public control like Greater Manchester’s bus network? (Photo: Shutterstock)
Could more of the UK’s bus services be brought under public control like Greater Manchester’s bus network? (Photo: Shutterstock)

The move is backed by nine out of ten local authorities in Greater Manchester, and a public consultation found that the plan had 83 per cent support among residents.

The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham said deregulation had caused services to “slowly disintegrate” over 30 years, and caused fares to go up “at a far greater rate than inflation”.

He said: “No longer will the bus companies be only accountable to their shareholders. You - the residents of Greater Manchester - will be in charge, you will be able to hold the mayor to account with service standards if they are not met."

"What we’ve watched over 30 years is our services slowly disintegrate, more and more places cut off, bus fares go up at a far greater rate than inflation. We’ve seen jobs lost as operators shut down networks.

He added: "At the same time we've been able to look down the road at London where bus patronage increased."

Did public transport used to be run by local authorities?

Pascale Robinson, who ran the Better Buses for Greater Manchester campaign, said that public ownership was the default for a long time in the UK, and still is in much of Europe, where transport links can often be cheaper and more reliable.

She said: “Buses and the railways used to be in public ownership and this is still the norm across Europe.

“The bus network was privatised and deregulated outside of London under Margaret Thatcher through the 1985 Transport Act. This created a system where private bus operators have near complete control over the services they run on a local level.

“A small number of local authorities have maintained their publicly owned municipal bus companies - like Reading and Nottingham - but there has since been a ban on councils setting up new publicly owned bus companies.

She added: “The impact of this has been that we lost £1.49 billion to bus company shareholders in the ten years to 2019, fares in England have gone up 71% since 2005, and in Greater Manchester alone, eight million miles of routes have been cut since 2010.”

How will it work?

The new system will take some time to become fully operational, but will result in all public transport in the region being franchised by 2025, at which point train services will also begin to be brought into public control.

Mr Burnham has said that the first franchised buses will be rolled out in Bolton and Wigan, and that a full single transport system incorporating buses and trams will be in use across the region by 2023.

Private firms will still be able to operate services, through a franchise system similar to that used in London, but their routes and fares will be set by local authorities.

Campaigners expect one of the main benefits of the decision will be the ability for passengers to buy a single ticket to use any bus in the region, rather than buying different passes for different operators.

There are currently more than 830 services run across the region, operated by 30 different companies with more than 100 different types of ticket available.

It is also expected that particularly busy routes, which are often over-served to boost profit margins, may well be stripped back, while an emphasis will be placed on serving people in remote or less well-connected areas.

While private companies set routes and fares, they are unlikely to operate less profitable routes, despite the vital public service they provide in connecting communities.

Mr Burnham said: “You can only truly call it public transport if it’s accessible to all of the public.”

Highlighting some of the potential positives which could come from the franchising plan, Ms Robinson pointed out that Transport for London can use profits from busy routes to subsidise socially necessary services and more affordable fares, “so all communities have a bus service”.

She also said the authority can introduce “a simple smart card ticket with an automatic daily cap on spend which can be used on all public transport, guaranteeing the best price”.

Under the current deregulated system, this would be illegal due to competition law.

Will it happen elsewhere?

Greater Manchester will be the only region outside the UK to have buses under public control since 1986, but it may not remain this way for long.

The government’s recently published new bus strategy could pave the way for all local authorities to be able to apply to bring public transport under their control.

But metro mayors across the country, who often represent millions of people across their regions, already have the power to do this, as shown by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.England’s existing metro mayors will be up for election in May, while West Yorkshire will elect its first.

Labour MP for Batley and Spen, Tracy Brabin, is standing as the Labour candidate for the mayoralty.

She retweeted Mr Burnham’s announcement about public transport in Greater Manchester, adding “if I’m elected in May I will be doing the same”.

Speaking to NationalWorld, she said: “The new mayor’s powers offer a unique opportunity to make a real difference on transport. We must be ambitious and deliver transport fit for the 21st century. Better connectivity, investment in rail, more reliable public transport, simpler fares and greener vehicles.

“As mayor, I will step in where the government has failed and tackle their lack of ambition. I will sort out the mess they’ve made of bus services and fight for the rail infrastructure that has been promised but not delivered.

“Public transport has to work for local people, and what Andy Burnham has announced in Manchester is exactly what we need here. I’ll be looking at imaginative solutions to make sure public transport works for people not profit and ensure that ticketing is integrated across the network.”

The Liberal Democrat candidate for West of England Mayor, Stephen Williams, has also Tweeted his intention to put a similar scheme in place if elected.