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Why I welcome the Bus Services Bill

Thursday, January 19th, 2017
First Greater Manchester operate a high proportion of services locally

First Greater Manchester operate a high proportion of services locally

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.

Time for Parliament to Look North?

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016


Parliament is literally falling apart.

That’s not hyperbole, that’s the hard truth given to us by the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster, which was tasked by the government to consider the options for restoration and renewal of the historical home of British democracy. Their report, delivered last month, estimated that at least £4 billion would be required to bring the Palace up to modern standards and prevent “an impending crisis which we cannot responsibly ignore” such as a major fire or a succession of failures that could render the building completely unusable. Even if you discount that worst-case scenario, the argument can definitely be made that the building is no longer fit for purpose in its current state. The roof leaks, the limestone is crumbling away and the walls are stuffed full of asbestos. There aren’t enough toilets for women and disabled people, but there’s a 25-yard shooting range in the House of Lords basement.

The preferred option of the Committee is to move Parliament out of Westminster for up to six years while repairs are made, with the Department of Health building in Whitehall and the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre on the other side of Parliament Square suggested as alternative venues for the House of Commons and House of Lords respectively. Any move is unlikely to happen before 2020 at the very earliest, but I’d like to take the opportunity to suggest a different solution. Move the entire Parliament out of London and into Greater Manchester for the duration of the repairs, if not longer.

It’s no secret that in this country there is an economic gulf between the North and the South, with negative effects for both parts of the country. While people in the North are starved of investment and high-quality jobs, people in the South face appalling costs of living due to an overheated housing market. Moving Parliament to Greater Manchester would help address both of these issues. At a stroke, a vast area of central London would be open for redevelopment, thousands of new public and private sector jobs would be created in Greater Manchester and the wider North, and businesses and the government would have another reason to look beyond the M25 ring road when it comes to making their investment decisions.

Furthermore, we have clear evidence from both the public and private sector that such an arrangement can work. It’s estimated that the BBC’s move to Salford Quays boosted the UK’s economy by £277m a year and increased the volume of productions made in the North from 5% in 2010 to 30.6% by 2014. 70% of London’s tech SMEs, the companies that will power the economies of the future, have reported that they are struggling to grow or expand in the city due to the costs of living and doing businesses there. Last year HSBC moved its head office and 1,000 staff for its retail and business lending operations out of London to Birmingham, and Deutsche Bank’s expansion in the same city appears to have reaped rich rewards as well. Public or private, big or small, London is no longer seen as the place you have to be in. Why shouldn’t it be the same for the highest levels of government as well?

We’ve reached the point where just about everybody, no matter where they are in the political spectrum, agrees that our nation’s relentless focus on London as the centre of everything cannot be allowed to continue. Moving Parliament would be the boldest of bold statements, turning words into radical action. The economic rationale is clear. The opportunity has presented itself. All that is lacking is the political will to make it happen.

The Next Step for Devolution

Friday, June 10th, 2016


People who have followed my blog and public statements on the Northern Powerhouse know that my view since the Chancellor first announced it has been consistent. I think, if implemented properly, it will be nothing less than a revolution in the way we live, work and do business in Tameside and the North, providing a much-needed counterbalance to a London-dominated country and economy. However, I continue to have doubts about whether the government is willing to make the practical steps that are required for the North to reach its true potential.

At the start of this month I was glad to see that the Centre for Cities appears to see things the same way. Since they were created in 2005 they have not only been one of the strongest champions of devolution in all its forms, but have also led the way in coming up with real ways of achieving it.

That’s why we should listen when they say that the government’s current focus on transport links as the key to unlocking the North’s potential risks missing the bigger picture. The Centre for Cities report points out that while there is a strong case for improving transport links between Northern cities – connections between many of them are less frequent and slower than a number of connections between London and its neighbours and similar regions in Europe – the key difference is how the individual cities themselves perform. The five more productive town and cities in the North – Manchester, Leeds, Warrington, Burnley and Liverpool – are light years behind their German and Dutch counterparts. The conclusion is simple; if we want to close the North-South divide we need to look at not just the transport links between cities (important though they may be) but the performance and productivity of the cities that are being linked together.

The Centre for Cities argue that this will require three things; addressing the skills gap in Northern cities, focusing on transport links within as well as between cities, and devolving responsibility for both of these to the city-region level. These can only be achieved via serious investment and a joined-up approach to devolution. What we have at the moment however, is £1.5 billion of cuts across the entire North of England and a devolution process that has given powers with one hand while wrenching powers away with the other. The debacle over forced academisation, thankfully now abandoned, was a perfect example of how this confused and fragmented approach has undermined confidence that the government will provide the money and powers to match their rhetoric on devolution.

You’ll be hard pressed to find another person who wants devolution to work more than me. I think we have the potential within Greater Manchester to put ourselves in the first rank of European and world cities, and make our residents lives richer, healthier and happier in the process. If we are not all pulling in the same direction, and doing our very best to make devolution the success it could be we risk letting the opportunity of a lifetime slip from our grasp. That would be nothing less than a tragedy. Not just for the North of England, but for the whole country.

Another Step Forward in Devolution

Monday, August 24th, 2015

In my role as Lead on Investment and Finance in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority I’m happy to say that there was more excellent news recently as ministers agreed to give the Combined Authority, of which Tameside which is a key member, control of £300m worth of European Union money. This will make us the only area in the country other than London and Cornwall that, as part of the drive towards further devolution, will be able to decide for ourselves how to invest this funding.

The ERDF focuses its investments on innovation and research; the digital agenda; support for small and medium-sized enterprises and the low-carbon economy.

The ERDF focuses its investments on innovation and research; the digital agenda; support for small and medium-sized enterprises; and the low-carbon economy.

Explaining the inner workings of the EU can be a tricky job at the best of times, but the money comes from two bodies known as the European Regional Development Agency and the European Social Fund. The purpose of these organisations is to balance out economic development across Europe by directing funding to areas to help them boost jobs and growth. For the 2014-20 funding period they are releasing around £5 billion to kick-start local projects throughout the country. Previously the money allocated to Greater Manchester was controlled by the North West Regional Development Agency, but this was scrapped by the coalition government and control was transferred to Whitehall.

Now we’ve got our money back, and instead of it being handled by a distant quango it will be handled by the people who are best placed to see where investment and funding needs to go to create Greater Manchester solutions for Greater Manchester issues. Specifically, we intend to vigorously invest in research and innovation and promoting small to medium sized enterprises. This will help Greater Manchester become the high-tech, high-quality employment area we know it can be. The previous round of funding in 2007-13 helped support projects on the cutting edge of science and economics such as The National Graphene Institute (£23m), Greater Manchester Business Growth Hub (£4.2m), the Royal

The National Graphene Institute (shown here under construction) was one of the projects part-funded by the last round of European development funding.

Eye Hospital (£3.7m), and The Landing in Media City (£6.8m). Together, these created more than 22,000 jobs across Manchester and the North West. Over the next funding period we fully intend to beat those achievements and beat them well.

When put together with the control of health and social care budgets and the retention of 100% additional business rate growth this move confirms once more that where Greater Manchester leads on devolution the rest of the country follows. It is my hope that other parts of Britain, especially in the North, will eventually be able to benefit from the same powers. As I’ve said many times before, this is an idea whose time has come. The only questions left now are “How far?” and “How soon?”

The Future of Local Government

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

It’s certainly been an eventful couple of weeks. With the ink barely dry on the budget, the Chancellor has launched the second phase of his ideological drive to gut the public services we rely on. The 2015 Spending Review, scheduled for November 25th, envisions departmental spending cuts of as much as 40% on top of what has been endured since 2010.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that local government will suffer the brunt of these new spending cuts, as has consistently been the case since 2010. In Tameside we have already lost £142m of our budget since 2010, and we expect to lose a further £50m by 2020. Councils up and down the country have performed miracles in absorbing horrific budget reductions while maintaining the services that local people rely on, but we have now reached the point where further cuts will start to fall in places and services that residents will notice and miss.

It would be optimistic in the extreme to expect the drive for spending cuts to relax even in the face of this imminent crisis. The only way for local government to avoid financial catastrophe is to fundamentally transform the way we operate. This will involve a genuine transfer of power from the centre to councils, not just the handing over of money and/or responsibility that we have seen so far.

Since it has also become clear that the Departmental for Communities and Local Government is unwilling or unable to fight our corner against the Treasury, local bodies such as councils and enterprise groups should be allowed to have a genuine voice and influence in any future spending review negotiations. In financial terms, I would like to see us argue for ending the ludicrous referendum limit on council tax rises and giving councils the freedom to set their own council tax bands, fees and charges. In policy terms, I would like to see councils being given a free hand to run and fund their own services as they see fit, subject only to a regular central government (or, preferably, an independent body) audit to ensure that they are meeting their statutory obligations.

The devolution we have seen in Greater Manchester this year is an encouraging first step but we are clear that this must be the beginning of the journey, not the end. Unless any further budget cuts are met with an equal increase in the powers of local government the current arrangements will amount to little more than slapping a sticking plaster on a mortal wound. We have long gone past the point where devolution and transformation are nice to haves, they are now absolutely vital to the survival of local government in any form.

Think Big, Act Local – Anchor Institutions and the Civil Service

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

One thing we don’t do at Tameside Council is stand still; we’re always searching for new ways to improve life in the borough for residents and businesses. Sometimes we create the ideas ourselves, but other times we take good ideas from elsewhere and make them work for Tameside. It is in that spirit that a paper from the Netter Centre of Community Partnerships at the University of Pennsylvania caught my eye this week. It explores the concept of using “anchor institutions” in an area to create employment and attract inward investment.

Broadly speaking, anchor institutions are large public sector or non-profit organisations that are firmly rooted within their local areas. Their size ensures that they have a powerful presence in the community through employing local people, purchasing from local suppliers and acting as a hub for culture, learning and innovation. The most common anchor institutions are universities, colleges and hospitals, although sports team, churches, utility companies and military bases also fit the definition.

But perhaps the most exciting thing to consider is how well anchor institutions would fit into our existing plans for the borough. Already 55.2% of our annual spend is with local businesses, up from 40.7% three years ago. When it is complete, Vision Tameside will make it easier to leverage the presence of Tameside Council and Tameside College to increase footfall and spending within the borough. Furthermore, we also intend to continue our commitment to work closely with our partner organisations in and around Tameside, including New Charter Housing, Active Tameside, NHS Tameside and Glossop, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and our many private sector employers to make Tameside a better place to live, work and invest in.

Looking in the bigger picture, given the recent progress with devolution and the fact that many anchor institutions are large public sector bodies, the argument for moving some of Whitehall’s departments out of London should be revisited. If the BBC can do it, then the Department for Work and Pensions or the Department of Transport (to use but two examples that might be considered) certainly can. Given the ease with which employees can work flexibly thanks to modern technology, and the lower costs of living and doing business in the North, only the hidebound London-centric views of Whitehall are stopping us having a serious conversation about how this could be done.

The past year has shown that British cities could soon be redefining what is possible in terms of building and maintaining a local economy. Our freedom to experiment and innovate at the local level has never been greater. If we truly intend to move forwards and meet the challenges ahead, we should make the very most of it.

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