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Greater Manchester public bus reform ‘will go ahead’ next year despite Rotala challenge, Mayor vows

Mayor Andy Burnham said he still plans to ‘press ahead’ with the major bus reforms.

Andy Burnham plans to press ahead with his bid to bring buses in Greater Manchester back under public control as a fresh legal fight is launched.

The Greater Manchester mayor insists the first franchised bus services will still start from next year and serve the whole city-region by the end of 2024.

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It comes as bus operator Rotala, which owns Diamond, wins the right to appeal a decision which cleared the road for bus reform across Greater Manchester.

The bus firm, which lost the judicial review it brought alongside Stagecoach earlier this year, has now launched a new appeal on two ‘very technical’ issues.

But Mr Burnham said he still plans to ‘press ahead’ with the major bus reforms.

Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham

He said: “Just a few weeks ago the court ruled in our favour on every single point, so we are disappointed that the appeal has been granted on what amounts to a very technical issue.

“Buses are the backbone of our transport network and integral to our plan for the Bee Network, an integrated, London-style transport system for Greater Manchester.

“Our plans have high levels of public support, and we will vigorously contest this appeal.

“We plan to press ahead with our plans to ensure the first franchised services are in place by the 17 September next year and across the whole of the city-region by the end of 2024.”

A franchised system in Greater Manchester, with private firms bidding to run services, would give local leaders control of bus planning, fares and ticketing.

They would be the first outside London to have this power in more than 30 years – and other regions are looking to follow suit with government support.

What are the timescales?

The new franchised bus services are set to start running in Wigan and Bolton by September 2023 before being rolled out to the rest of Greater Manchester.

The plans to bring buses back under public control for first time since 1986 were set in motion five years ago, but faced an appeal from two bus firms.

Stagecoach and Rotala, argued that Mr Burnham’s bid to move to a franchising system where operators bid to run services, was both ‘irrational’ and ‘unlawful’.

But in March, a judge ruled that the decision to franchise bus services was lawfully carried out – as were all other aspects of the franchising process.

Stagecoach accepted the ruling, but Rotala sought the right to appeal the decision on four grounds – two of which were dismissed as ‘hopeless’.

However, Rotala was granted leave to appeal on the other two technical points.

Buses in Piccadily in Manchester. Photo: David Dixon

Rotala has argued that a statutory audit of the pandemic impact report should have been carried out as part of the process, as it was on another assessment.

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) says it did seek a review from the same independent auditors who audited the original assessment and they found that the approach taken was ‘appropriate’ and of ‘sufficient quality’.

The GMCA says it will contest this appeal and, in the meantime, work to deliver bus franchising across Greater Manchester by the end of 2024 will continue.

Responding to the latest decision, Rotala said: “On 26 March 2021, the Company announced that the Mayor of Greater Manchester had made the formal decision to franchise the bus market in the Greater Manchester region.

“The company made an immediate claim to the High Court of Manchester to judicially review a number of aspects of the consultation process carried out by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (‘GMCA’) which led to the decision of the Mayor to franchise the bus network.

“As previously announced, on 9 March, Mr Justice Julian Knowles rejected these arguments, dismissed the claim and refused to give leave to appeal. The company applied to seek permission to appeal the decision to the Court of Appeal which has now granted leave to appeal on certain aspects of the case.

“The appeal hearing is expected to take place before August.”

Rotala said a ‘further announcement’ would be made in due course.