Bus services in Liverpool city region were deregulated by Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher in 1986 and now Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram is looking to take back control. Tony McDonough reports
Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram is putting forward proposals to take back control of Liverpool city region’s bus network for the first time in 36 years.
In 1985, the Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher passed legislation to allow all local bus networks outside of London to be deregulated. Merseyside’s buses were taken out of state control the following year.
This led two a period of chaos with private operators aggressively competing for passengers during the morning and evening rush hours on Liverpool’s busiest routes. At one point fleets of buses from Greater Manchester would come up the East Lancs Road every morning to compete with local operators.
This eventually settled down as the smaller operators were bought out by the bigger firms. Today the two dominant operators are Arriva and Stagecoach. However, the legacy of that change has an impact to this day with Mr Rotheram believing the system is “broken and fragmented” and too expensive.
A recommendation to confirm franchising as the preferred future model for running the city region’s bus network and services will go before the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority (CA) on Friday, March 4.
As part of the meeting, the CA will be asked to consider both the draft outline business case for bus franchising and an enhanced partnership model for bus governance. On balance the preferred option and the recommendation to the meeting, to meet the CA’s Vision for Bus is to franchise the bus system.
If the recommendation is approved, it would be subject to additional work to complete the bus franchise business case. An independent assessment of the completed business case will need to be carried out, followed by a public consultation, both of which are in line with the requirements of the Bus Services Act 2017.
Subject to approval, it is recommended that a panel be established to provide political oversight to the delivery of these next steps and to make future recommendations to the Combined Authority.
Franchising was identified as the ‘emerging leading option’ for bus reform in February 2020. Mr Rotheram believe it provides the greatest degree of public sector influence and would allow the CA to specify the network, set fares and control fare policy.
He said: “One of the major reasons I ran for election was the opportunity negotiated in our devolution deal to fix our region’s broken, fragmented public transport network.
“Too many people in too many communities feel cut off from each other and from accessing opportunities to get on because of a system that simply does not work for them. In too many places, our transport network is too confusing, too unreliable, and too expensive.
“Next week, local leaders have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reverse the decision by the Thatcher government to fragment our public transport system. Hundreds of thousands of people in our city region rely on their services every day, with 82% of all public transport journeys in our region taken by the bus.
“Since the Thatcher Government deregulated buses outside of London in the 1980s, services outside of the capital have suffered.
“After years of painstaking work, the Combined Authority’s assessment into the future of our bus market is recommending franchising as its preferred option to be considered further.
“The rest of the country is watching the work we are doing here very closely. We are one of the only areas leading the way in using new powers under the Bus Services Act to take greater control over public transport and ensure it is run in the interests of local people.”
Although franchising is being recommended, the report also asks that the CA recognise the importance of bus operators to the city region and recognise the constructive and collaborative approach they have taken to working with the authority through the Bus Alliance.
It also asks that the Executive Director of Place be instructed to continue to work constructively with regional bus operators as the next stage in the evaluation of bus franchising options is undertaken.