GMCA 'unlawful' in relying on Covid report to support bus franchising, court hears

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority was 'unlawful' in relying on an assessment of the 'cataclysmic' impact of Covid-19 on its bus franchising proposals, a court has heard.

Bus operators Stagecoach and Rotala are challenging the decision-making behind the £134.5m scheme in a judicial review hearing at the High Court.

Plans to bring Greater Manchester’s bus network back into public control and introduce London-style services were signed off by Mayor Andy Burnham in March.

But the bus companies claim the GMCA ‘conducted an unlawful process and a flawed consultation’ which failed to properly account for ‘fundamental changes’ brought about by the pandemic.

A 2019 assessment of the bus franchising proposal, which was independently audited by the business advisory firm Grant Thornton, said franchising provided better value for money to taxpayers than partnering with operators.

Covid had delayed a decision being taken on bus franchising in March 2020, with the GMCA agreeing in June to compile a report on the potential impacts of the virus on the bus market.

Despite the crippling effect on the industry which saw passenger levels plummet and bus timetables slashed, the Covid report concluded that franchising remained the preferred option.

Howeever, the hearing presided over by Mr Justice Julian Knowles heard that the document failed to meet legal requirements set out in the Bus Services Act.

Marie Demetriou QC, the barrister representing Stagecoach, said on Wednesday: “You can’t have a cataclysmic event like Covid which throws into doubt the validity of the assessment that’s been conducted before the event occurs, and then determine that the earlier assessment holds good but to do so on the basis of work which falls short of statutory standards.

“It’s common ground that the GMCA did not proceed on the basis which we say was necessary so there’s no dispute about that. 

“They accept that the Covid report did not comply with the Act and was not audited in accordance with the provisions of the Act.

“We say that their failure to proceed in the way that we say is necessary was unlawful.”

Legislation requires that local authorities need to obtain an independent audit of their assessment for bus franchising before proceeding with it.

Stagecoach accept that the GMCA’s pre-Covid assessment was audited by Grant Thornton – but they claim the Covid impact report that followed was not audited to the same standards.

The court heard the report relied on several ‘subjective’ potential scenarios forecasting how the public transport sector in Greater Manchester would – or would not – recover from Covid.

They range from public transport demand returning to normal, to car travel dominating and public transport continuing to slump, to public transport exceeding pre-crisis levels.

But the report provided no data to support the scenarios, which Stagecoach say is contrary to the ‘detailed and granular analysis’ required to make the case for change.

Ms Demetriou said: “In the circumstances where there had been this dramatic turn of events, it was irrational of the GMCA to carry out its further work to a standard that fell below the statutory standard.

“The independent auditor needs to certify that the data, the evidence and the analysis is robust and has been properly done.

“That’s what the defendant should have done, they should have obtained an audit once they carried out the Covid work.

“We say, respectfully, that it’s obvious why the defendant didn’t ask Grant Thornton to audit the Covid report, it simply wouldn’t have met this standard.

“We just don’t know when you look at the report where the information comes from, it’s all highly subjective.”

Barristers for the GMCA and Rotala, which operates Diamond Bus services in Greater Manchester, will make their submissions to the court tomorrow (Thursday).

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