Franchising battle trundles on

Despite continued strong campaigning from the region’s operators, Manchester mayor Andy Burnham is pursuing his bus franchising plans. In a new, ten-year plan, Burnham is setting out to be the first to test the powers that were granted to local areas in the Bus Services Act 2017.

The proposals have been backed by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and will now be subject to an independent audit, in accordance with the provisions of the legislation. The audit could of course knock the plans off course, but the likelihood is that some form of franchising, in at least parts of the region, will become a reality.

This is something that has been evident for some time, but there remains a reluctance among operators to accept that they may have lost the argument some time ago.

OneBus, acting for the operators, has run an impressive collective campaign and developed attractive partnership alternatives, but so far, this has failed to impress those around Burnham who remain convinced that only franchising will deliver the integrated network that they desire.

The key statistic being deployed by the mayor is the decline in bus use in the region, something that has been echoed elsewhere in the UK, and it is this which has seriously (and perhaps fatally) damaged the operator’s case for the status quo. And there is little likelihood of central government reining back Manchester given continuing paralysis at Westminster due to Brexit.

Naturally, the incumbents in Manchester are likely to fight hardest, although it is evident that First is already sounding the retreat with its second depot sale now underway. And there are of course industry players who are willing participants in the London franchised market who may be much more relaxed about the idea of a Manchester version.

The battle over deregulation has been going on for more than 30 years now, and it will be interesting to see whether the younger bus managers who will soon be taking the reins will continue the industry’s implacable opposition to regulatory change.

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