Mayor questions 'justification' of legal challenges to bus franchising

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has questioned the 'justification' of legal challenges against plans to introduce a £135 million bus franchising system in the city-region.

Stagecoach and Rotala, which runs Diamond Bus North West, have submitted separate court applications for a judicial review of the proposed bus reform process.

Both companies argue that the consultation surrounding the proposed move to London-style bus service was ‘unlawful’ as it did not properly take the impact of Covid-19 into account.

Leaders of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) will decide whether to recommend to Mr Burnham the introduction of the scheme on March 23.

If approved, the new system would be introduced in three phases in January 2023, January 2024 and January 2025.

Mr Burnham has stressed that the GMCA is following a ‘democratic process’ using powers given to them by the government to take control of their bus services.

The government’s new £3bn plan to shake-up bus services continued to encourage councils and combined authorities to move towards reform ‘more quickly’, said Mr Burnham.

He told a press conference on Wednesday: “The strategy as I understand it very much uses the language we have used in Greater Manchester in wanting to see more London-style services.

“It is for bus operators to justify their decisions, all I can say is that this is a democratic process that is unfolding.

“I am not certain how it can be justified for that process to be disrupted, particularly when there’s an act of parliament underpinning it, and also a government strategy that is encouraging more urgent action.”

Under a bus franchising, buses on the local network would still be run by private companies but the GMCA would have control over fares, timetables and routes.

Greater Manchester would be the first place outside of London to have a regulated bus system since Margarat Thatcher privatised all bus networks outside of the capital in 1986.

Regional bus operators, under the OneBus partnership, have been pushing for the GMCA to work with them to improve the network instead of pursuing a franchising model.

According to Rotala, the ‘real risk’ of their judicial review claim succeeding is not acknowledged in the GMCA report asking leaders to back the scheme for approval by Mr Burnham.

A spokesperson said: “It is a risky gamble of the taxpayer’s money to make the decision to franchise without first allowing the Court to determine Rotala’s claim and potentially misleading not to include this risk in the report.

“Rotala is concerned that the decision to franchise is being made so rashly for political reasons due to the upcoming election as opposed to the greater good of the bus market.”

Martin Griffiths, chief executive of Stagecoach, said earlier this week: “We believe the GMCA conducted an unlawful process and a flawed consultation on proposals which do not properly reflect the fundamental and material changes brought about by the Covid‐19 pandemic.

“This is simply not the right time to be considering spending huge sums of money on a bus franchising scheme which does not meet the tests laid down in law.

“The proposed scheme also involves spending £135m on transitional costs alone without delivering any improved services for customers when at the same time multi‐million‐pound cuts are being considered to vital frontline public services.”

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