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English devolution ‘comes of age’ as Manchester takes on the buses

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English devolution is now at a “coming of age moment”, one of the country’s most high profile mayors has said ahead of the UK’s political conference season.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham was speaking as the first publicly run buses to operate outside London for nearly 40 years start operating on Sunday, as the region launches a much-anticipated franchised network.

Burnham said the move would stimulate growth through better services, but added that subsidy from central government and possibly a local “tourist tax” would be needed to fund it in the future. 

From this weekend politicians will oversee fares, routes and timetables in two Greater Manchester boroughs, Wigan and Bolton, with the rest of the conurbation to follow over the next 18 months. The yellow buses will be part of the mayor’s branded “bee” public transport network, which will eventually integrate buses, trains and trams.

Speaking ahead of the new franchise’s launch, Burnham called the moment “hugely significant”.

“I think in some ways it represents the coming of age of English devolution, in that a decision has been taken that rows back some of the misguided policies of the 1980s,” he said, adding that it “changes the way things are run for the benefit of people”.

Services will run both earlier and later in the day, and on some routes they will run more frequently. Audio-visual displays are also being introduced on buses, some of which will be electric. 

On the buses. ‘The more you invest in good public transport, the more you will see returns in productivity and in inward investment,’ said Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham: © Andrew Milligan/PA

The standard model for English bus networks outside the capital dates back to 1986, when Margaret Thatcher opted to deregulate them in a move designed to stimulate competition.

However, since then patronage has been on a steady decline, with services increasingly fragmented and routes reduced owing to subsidy cuts. Burnham and other Labour mayors have made public control of bus networks a political priority. 

The powers handed to English mayors under 2017 devolution legislation allow them to create a franchised bus system, akin to that in London. In recent years Burnham has made it a priority to use them, although so far he is the only mayor to have done so.

He said the move was coming “in a parliament where there’s been remarkably few large scale visible public service transformation projects”, calling the franchised system “one of the biggest — if not the biggest”.

“It shows there is power in devolution,” he added.

Nevertheless, there are questions over how his model will be funded in the longer term. 

Greater Manchester is paying for the initial £134mn costs until 2025 through a mixture of mayoral precept rises, contributions from councils, devolved budgets and pooled business rates. Burnham wants ministers to then provide further subsidy. 

“The more you invest in good public transport, the more you will see returns in productivity and in inward investment — economic growth overall,” he said. 

If ministers would not “fully meet our requirements” — likely to be in the tens of millions of pounds — they must grant the area further tax-raising powers, Burnham said. 

“If it has to be a bit of a mix of some central funding and some local funding, well, we’re not averse to that,” he said. “But you can’t deny both, basically. The obvious one would be a tourist tax of some form.”

He added that the government’s current bus service improvement plan — which includes revenue funding to improve bus networks — is supposed to have a second phase from 2025, although none has so far been announced. 

Burnham claimed his policy was getting “huge interest” from within his Labour party “at every level”, but was unclear about whether a future Labour government would provide more subsidy than the current Conservative one.

“Obviously I’ll be making the case for that, because everyone is talking about growth,” he said, adding: “This is a prerequisite for growth.”

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