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Opinion

We should all join Andy Burnham on his journey

As the desire to wean us all off dependency on short car journeys grows, the joined-up approach that public ownership affords makes sense

The Andy Burnham approach is fascinating. One of the key planks in his leadership of Manchester is transport. Last week he defeated a legal challenge against his plan to take bus services back under public ownership. There are at least 30 bus operators vying for business in Manchester at present. Bus operators Stagecoach and Rotala lead the judicial opposition to Burnham’s plan. But a judge ruled Burnham, as mayor of Greater Manchester, acted correctly. Within days, Burnham announced that single-journey costs would be capped at £2. Currently they run to £4 and up. 

He’s not stopping there. He plans to have a unified public transport system across tram, bus, train and bike. He’s called it the Bee Network. All 10 districts within Greater Manchester will join the network by the end of 2024. Burnham is putting money behind it – £430 million to improve buses over five years.  

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“We will make travelling by public transport more appealing, easier and, significantly, put people before profits,” said Burnham.  

The benefits are so clear it leaves you wondering why more local authorities won’t do it. There is an environmental gain. People use cars a lot because, frequently, there is no viable alternative. Make the alternative much more accessible, cheaper and more comprehensive in where it extends, and the nudge towards behavioural change will be easier. It will take some time to shift all vehicles to electric, so a short-term future that sees less exhaust pollution in urban areas can only be good. The environmental and fitness element is one that Burnham is focused on. He has hired Dame Sarah Storey, Britain’s most successful ever Paralympian, to be active travel commissioner. Incidentally, if Dame Sarah is keen on extending bike access, she could speak to The Big Issue eBike scheme about the work they’re doing in Bristol, and how that could grow. 

There is also an opportunity to help those whose job chances are limited because of the high cost of public transport. When the price is capped at a reasonable level, things look more positive. This makes a realistic dent in the spiralling cost of living. 

Other cities are watching and making plans. According to The Guardian, Tracy Brabin in West Yorkshire and Steve Rotheram in the Liverpool city region are planning to follow Manchester’s lead.  

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This could roll out and roll further. There are major issues around transport in many British towns and cities. The fact that there isn’t a connected service between bus, rail and underground in Glasgow, for instance, remains a major bugbear for the great city’s citizens.  

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Bus services were deregulated in England, Scotland and Wales (except in London) by Margaret Thatcher’s government in October 1986. It proved a boon for providers. The argument for it was that it would introduce competition and better service for customers. It’s getting harder to support that argument as routes are cut, particularly in rural areas, and prices rise. And Burnham has proved that it’s not beyond the wit of a good local authority to provide proper transport for the people of a region. 

As the desire to wean us all off dependency on short car journeys grows, the positive, joined-up approach that public ownership affords makes sense. 

Now, it’s time to look at the energy network… 

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big IssueRead more of his columns here.

paul.mcnamee@bigissue.com

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