If ever a list were to be drawn up of the worst pieces of legislation ever passed, the 1985 Transport Act would be on it. The deregulation of bus services outside of Greater London that it implemented (why was London exempt if it was such a good idea?) led to fragmentation, higher fares and falling passenger numbers. Greater Manchester is a prime example of this.
Locally there are two major players in the bus market, Stagecoach and First. It was claimed that deregulation would drive down fares by allowing competition between operators, however there are very few places in Greater Manchester where the two companies actually compete. Instead the conurbation has been carved up with First operating the majority of services in the North and Stagecoach in the South. Essentially we’ve swapped a public monopoly for two private ones.
This has allowed the two firms to charge whatever fares they believe they can get away with and flood the profitable corridors with buses to keep any sniff of competition of the road – despite many of the vehicles running barely half full for much of the day. For example, if I want to travel from Ashton to Oldham on the bus, what choice do I have? It’s First’s 409 or a fair old walk! Equally, from Hyde to Manchester it’s just Stagecoach’s 201. And if you ever do need to make a journey that uses services operated by more than one operator, from Mossley to Denton for example, you’ll have fork out for a more expensive ‘System One’ ticket.
Even more frustrating is when you consider the public money given to the firms in the form of subsidies. Bus operators receive a fuel subsidy called the ‘Bus Service Operator Grant’ for all services they run, even those on the profitable corridors. The operators then ask for an additional grant to run services that are not profitable but are deemed socially necessary such as those serving the more rural parts of Tameside which would otherwise be cut off. That’s a lot of tax payer’s money being paid to essentially enable large multinational companies to make a profit. There has to be a better way surely?
Now make no mistake, I’m not calling for more on road competition. The bus wars on Oxford Road in South Manchester are the clearest local example that such a thing recreated on Hyde Road, Ashton New Road or Oldham road would be a disaster for air pollution and congestion. However, if we are to have competition, we must have a system that ensures that it is genuine and that gets the biggest bang for the public buck. That’s why I welcome the 2016 Bus Services Bill.
The Bus Services Bill will hand power over the regulation of bus services to the new Greater Manchester Mayor. Just like in London, locally accountable politicians will be able to control the routes, frequency and fares and design a network that is responsive to local need, affordable, and complements, rather than competes with, the heavy rail and Metrolink services. The competition will be taken off the road and in to the process of letting the contracts to run services. This regulated system in the capital has led to a flat £1.50 single fare and a strong upward trend in the number of passenger journeys on London’s buses since 2000. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the country where bus use is in steady decline.
And so the improvement on offer for transport is one of the many reasons I am such a fierce supporter of the Greater Manchester Devolution deal. Devolution is a journey and as the combined authority grows and shows that it can make a success of the powers it is entrusted with in my view we should look to expand our reach. Whilst it may be bus services today, in transport terms the next logical step in my mind is railway stations and local commuter railway services. Then where, who knows? But whichever path we take I am firmly of the view that there are many powers, currently exercised in the corridors of parliament that would be far better exercised in the corridors of Greater Manchester’s Town Halls.