Local leaders are urging all residents and organisations across Greater Manchester to "make sure their voices are heard" on the future of the city-region's buses as a major consultation enters its final weeks.
Thousands of people have already taken part in the consultation, which is being carried out by Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) to gather views on the impact of Covid-19 on its proposals for how buses should be run.
Questions have been asked around the timing and financial implications for both residents and councils, given the ongoing financial impact of the pandemic.
The combined authority wants a London-style franchising system costing £134.5m, which would give them control over fares, timetables and routes – instead of private bus companies, who would be contracted by GMCA to run the services.
Bus franchising requires £78m from the government, with the rest of the funding coming from council tax and business rates collected locally.
Taxpayers, who already pay £3 towards bus reform as part of the mayoral precept within their council tax bill, could end up paying an extra £18.20 by the end of the transition to the new system in 2025/26.
Leaders have argued that bus reform is needed now more than ever, as part of a bid to drive public transport usage back up to pre-pandemic levels.
Bus operators are still pushing for partnership with Greater Manchester, and they will be among the consultees of the latest public poll.
If approved by the mayor this spring, Greater Manchester would become the first region in the UK to bring back regulation since Margaret Thatcher privatised all bus networks outside of London in 1986.
Transport for Greater Manchester say three in four public transport journeys made in the region before and during the Covid-19 pandemic are by bus, and they continue to be a critical link to jobs and essential services - especially for some of Greater Manchester’s poorest and most vulnerable communities and those without a car.
Currently in Greater Manchester, buses are run by commercial bus companies who decide the routes, timetables, tickets and standards. There is no coordination and limited oversight. In areas they don’t run services, the public sector pays to fill in the gaps in the market, where it can.
Between October 2019 and January 2020, GMCA held a consultation on a proposed franchising scheme for the city-region’s buses. Over 8,500 individuals and organisations gave their views in the previous consultation, with four out of five respondents, who answered the relevant question, supporting the proposed franchising scheme.
In June 2020, GMCA received the results of the consultation but said they decided, before a final decision could be made, that the impact of Covid-19 on the bus market and proposed franchising scheme should be considered.
Sir Richard Leese, Deputy Mayor of Greater Manchester, said: “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen that buses are the backbone of our public transport system and they have been essential for large numbers of key workers to get to work and others to travel to work, education or care for people in need.
“However, we need our buses to be part of an integrated network, so getting around is easy, accessible and affordable. Local control over the bus system would offer us the ability in the long-term to maintain the sort of network we need for people all over Greater Manchester to be able to get to work, to school, the shops and able to access essential services.
“Last year, we consulted on a proposed bus franchising scheme to bring buses under local control and over 8,500 of you responded, with four out of five people supporting the scheme. From the result of last year’s consultation, we know people want to see change on how the buses are run. Clearly, we are in different circumstances now which is why we are holding a further consultation on the impact of Covid-19 on our franchising proposals.
“If people still want change, we need to hear from everyone as part of this consultation – whether you catch the bus in Wigan to get to school or Bolton for the shops, or you aren’t a regular bus user, we need your views. So, make sure you have your say on the future of your buses while there is still time.”
With Covid-19 causing a lot of uncertainty over how people will travel in future, Transport for Greater Manchester used four scenarios in a report which looked at potential future travel demand in Greater Manchester and what it could mean for the combined authority's proposals to change how buses are run.
Transport bosses say that under all scenarios, franchising is still "the best option to achieve Greater Manchester’s long-term ambition for a fully integrated public transport system" and GMCA still has funding available to pay for the transition to franchising.
But there are warnings in the report that the combined authority may have to provide further funding or make reductions to the bus network in the future to "manage the financial risks" depending on the impacts of Covid-19.
However, TfGM add that "difficult choices" would still have to be made even under the other options available - such as entering into a partnership with bus operators or making no change to the bus market - as the combined authority would need to pay to "fill more of the gaps in the commercial network", with "no overall coordination and none of the other benefits of franchising".
Following the consultation, the responses will be independently analysed and reported to the GMCA, who will consider the responses alongside the outcome of the previous consultation.
The outcome of both consultations will then be considered as part of the final decision by the Mayor Andy Burnham, on whether to implement the proposed franchising scheme.
Interested parties can find out more at www.gmconsult.org or call 0161 244 1100. Hard copies of the consultation document are available on request.