I secured a debate in parliament on Bus Services in Greater Manchester.
I spoke about the impact of bus service reductions in Greater Manchester, the opportunities that arise through bus franchising and the need to bring about a new settlement for bus users in our City Region.
Following an employee buyout GM Buses South was sold to Stagecoach and GM Buses North sold to First Bus, both still operating for its inherited depots which split the city region in to.
Rather than creating active competition it created two private sector monopolies with differential ticketing, pricing and approaches to routes.
This was explored in the Competition Commission report during a two year investigation, which found that nationally there were high levels of market concentration and a number of barriers to entry into the commercial market, not least of all in establishing depots, buses and routes.
The same report found that head to head competition was uncommon, and that the cost to passengers of the lack of competition was between £115m and £305m nationally.
While we need to be doing much more to get people out of cars and onto public transport the truth is that between 2009/10 and 2017/18 annual bus use has decreased by over 32 million journeys a year in Greater Manchester alone.
Here in Greater Manchester in the last decade we have seen twenty million fewer bus journeys with fares up by over 55%. For many families it can be cheaper to get an Uber to visit friends and families than rely on infrequent and expensive buses. But that is not a realistic regular option for the low paid and those looking for work. In my constituency many job seekers are effectively cut off from seeking work at the employment hubs of Manchester Airport and Media City. Across Greater Manchester 37% of job seekers say that lack of access to affordable and reliable public transport are key barriers in gaining employment.
And it’s even more expensive for those who need to cross from the North to the South where a System One ticket now costs £5.80 a day and £19.00 a week just for bus use.
If you need to use the tram on top that will cost £9.00 a day for a peak ticket or £38.00 for a weekly ticket. Compare this to London where the weekly bus and tube ticket is £21.20.
With weekly tickets 179% more there can be no other conclusion than travellers in Greater Manchester are literally being taken for a ride.
It has been evident Whitehall has little interest in bus users and especially those outside the capital. Private companies have been allowed to focus on profit and return to shareholders and the consequences have been drastic.
It was in the 2014 Devolution Agreement that Greater Manchester leaders, of which I was one at the time, agreed to bring forward plans to franchise bus services in Greater Manchester. This would allow greater power over routes, frequency, operating hours, fares and standards.
Funding has already been spent; £6m to date with a further £3.5m and £2.25m for bus reform towards 2020, totally £11.25m. Incidentally, that’s dwarf by Stagecoach profit of £17.7m last year alone and I expect those margins account for some of the nervousness we seen – it provides a healthy fighting fund if they choice to fight against it rather than working in partnership for the benefit of taxpayers and bus users.
But Greater Manchester must now recognise that with every week, month and year that passes it is the millions of people in our city region who will be paying the price of delay.
And that comes me to exploring the willingness to ‘do it Greater Manchester’s’ way.
When it became common knowledge that First Manchester were seeking buyers for its four depots in Manchester, Oldham and Bury together with its fleet of 500 buses and 2,000 employees it was a once in a generation opportunity to bring some order and sustainability to bus services covering some of the poorest communities in Greater Manchester.
I took this opportunity to raise this in my letter to the Mayor of Greater Manchester on 6th February, and I would still urge action on this.
Unfortunately we now learn that the Queens Road depot together with its 163 buses has been sold to Go-Ahead for £11.2m, separating it from the three remaining depots including Oldham.
While I accept that the new operator will work with other operators through the OneBus Partnership it is my belief that carving up the North of Greater Manchester to a range of new operators will likely make franchising harder and not easier.
It is hugely disappointing to see this, to put it mildly we have failed to capitalise on an opportunity which rarely presents itself.
So we need to offer an alternative that works here in Greater Manchester. Bus franchising offers a deal that will work for passengers and tax payers that will give us better routes, integrated ticketing for all local transport and affordable fares to encourage greater usage. It will also offer as it does in London a fair return to bus providers but they have to realise that the days of excessive profits for a poor service have gone. We missed an opportunity recently in North Manchester to return the ailing First Franchise to the public sector and create a co-operative model that could be an example for future franchising. Let’s learn the lesson from that locally and nationally.
For a lot of my constituents buses matter more than Brexit. If you want to why spend some time with me at a bus queue in Oldham. On current levels of frequency we would certainly have plenty of time to chat with locals.