£1.55 bus fares in Manchester? 'Never in a month of Sundays'

A big moment in GM history, a noisy protest in the city centre and the rest of our weekly briefing

Dear Millers — we hope you had a good weekend, welcome to this week’s Mill briefing.

Thanks for your many emails and tweets about our story yesterday. A lot of people responded to Ahmed story wishing him luck with his studies. If you missed the story, you can read it here.

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This week’s weather

The location of this forecast is Manchester and it’s sourced from the Met Office.

The big story: Bus reform

Top line: Andy Burnham’s announcement on Thursday afternoon that he is bringing buses back under local control is a really big moment. He called it the “biggest shake-up to Greater Manchester’s transport network in more than 30 years,” and it’s hard to argue with that.

The background here: Margaret Thatcher’s government deregulated buses outside London in 1986, meaning that local authorities have very little control over bus routes, fares or standards. In many places, including GM, fierce competition between companies has given way to local monopolies where the biggest companies can afford to maintain the bus depots and can dominate lucrative routes and put up prices.

  • Sir Richard Leese told The Mill earlier this year that the power to re-regulate buses was the biggest win of Greater Manchester’s devolution deal. “Of all the things that came out of devolution, this was the biggest single thing within it,” he told us in an in-depth interview (members only).

The new system: The system Burnham has chosen is London-style bus franchising. Private companies will still operate the buses, but only after winning franchises from the combined authority, which will control fares, timetables and routes. Crucially, ticketing will be fully integrated across buses, trains and trams. The first franchised buses will operate in 2023, but it will take a couple more years for the system to be rolled out across GM.

The big question: Are we really getting a London-style bus system? Transport experts and campaigners have been very enthusiastic about taking buses under local control for years, and are ecstatic that it is happening. They think — with some justification — that the new system will make public transport more appealing because you won’t have to worry about jumping between buses and trams, or between buses from different companies.

What’s more contested? Fares. Some of the excited tweets welcoming the announcement suggested that we might be about to get £1.55 bus fares like they have in London. Burnham often talks about the difference in fares, and Transport for Greater Manchester’s press briefing last week pointed out that “a single bus ticket [in GM] can cost £4 (compared to £1.55 in London).” So are we going to get £1.55 fares?

  • “Absolutely never. Never in a month of Sundays,” says Gary Nolan, the chief executive of OneBus, which represents the bus companies in GM who are mostly very resistant to the franchising idea. Nolan admitted to The Mill this morning that franchising “does have some positives,” but says “it is going to need a hell of a lot of money.”

Bottom line: Nolan might have a very big interest in playing down the benefits of franchising, but he’s probably right about this. Without a large government subsidy — which has not been promised — basic fares are not going to fall significantly. London’s buses are heavily subsidised by its lucrative underground system and its losses are considered unsustainable. That doesn’t mean the system can’t be a vast improvement in terms of convenience, coordination and saving lots of money for chaotic Mancunians like Mill journalists who hop around from one route to another without much forward planning and end up spending half their wages on buses. But don’t expect to catch a £1.55 bus to Wigan.

Coming up this week: We are releasing a members’ podcast featuring our in-depth conversation with Sir Richard Leese about bus reform, an issue that has spanned his long political career in Manchester. He talks about what the system was like when he came to the city in the late 1970s, the ‘bus wars’ of the 1990s, and answers our members’ questions about what the new system can actually deliver. Join as a member now to get that podcast and all our members-only stories this week.

A protestor holding a placard at Saturday’s ‘Kill the Bill’ protest, organised by the ‘Stand up to Racism’ group to object to the government’s controversial policing bill (Photos: Dani Cole/The Mill). The demo stopped trams and traffic on Portland Street, and some protesters chanted “All cops are bastards” at officers in nearby police vans. When the demo moved to Stevenson Square, participants knelt silently for 8 minutes next to the George Floyd memoria. To see our photos and quotes from the protest, head to our Twitter account. Eventually, police cleared the remaining protesters from the road and made 18 arrests.

Covid-19 update

  • Rules: Today marks the second stage of the government’s coronavirus roadmap, meaning groups of six (or two households) can once again meet outside and outdoor sports facilities can reopen.

  • Rates: It’s a fairly stagnant picture here, with the GM rate at 90.8, down 5.7% versus the previous week and the rate across England at 55.2, down 2.9%. Expect these numbers to start ticking up in the coming weeks as restrictions loosen.

  • Hospitals: Covid-19 admissions to GM hospitals fell to 46 last week, and the number of patients with the virus in critical beds is down to 66, having reached 170 in February. The number of Covid-19 patients in our hospitals, excluding the ones in critical care, is now 309.

  • Vaccinations: 1.1 million people in GM have now received their first vaccine dose, representing more than half (53%) of adult residents. That includes 93% of over-70s and 77% of 50-69s. The numbers are up to last Thursday.

Home of the week

This is the living room view from the 3-bed semi-detached Pike House Farm in Turton, Bolton, on sale for £650,000 on Zoopla.

Five stories worth reading

1. Boohoo cuts suppliers

Online retail giant Boohoo, headquartered in Manchester, has cut its number of suppliers from 500 to 78. It follows an independent review and a series of allegations that emerged last year, including poor working conditions and staff being paid a little as £3.50 an hour. The FT reports on a fast-fashion company under pressure to change the way it works.

2. GMP’s traditionalist

Greater Manchester Police’s new chief constable Stephen Watson is a “traditionalist” who likes “police to look like police,” says a nice profile in the MEN. Watson has a record of turning around failing police forces, and by the sounds of it, runs a tight ship. “The very many tattooed officers of GMP may have a little problem up their sleeves — at South Yorkshire he insisted any tattoos weren't visible,” the piece says.

3. Child asylum seekers

A report from the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU) has called for the Home Office to “make decisions on all children’s asylum claims without interviews where possible.” According to social workers and charities, delays in receiving an asylum decision has had “severe repercussions” on children’s physical and mental health, the Guardian reports.

4. Entwined histories

“On his arrival in the city of Manchester in 1966, W.G. Sebald looked out to the west across a demolished Hulme, itself an industrial district that was a locus classicus of Engels’ epic description of the world’s first industrial working class.” Social historian Patrick Joye traces his personal history and the history of Manchester in The Manchester Review.

5. Who’s Hulme is it?

"I think if you keep pushing more and more student accommodation into one area it reaches a point where you just disregard the rest of the community, and we’ve reached that point,” says a local campaigner in Hulme in this great piece about the tensions in the area caused by big new developments. It’s by Local Democracy Reporter Niall Griffiths, who nicely captures the competing interests in a community where some people feel like they are being left behind by the rapid pace of change.

Coming up this week: We go for a secret viewing at one of Manchester’s most expensive new purpose build student accommodation blocks, where residents get access to a cinema room and pay £1000-a-month for hotel-style rooms. Join us as a member to get that piece in your inbox.

Things to do this week

Podcast | In this Not Quite Light episode, local photographer Simon Buckley talks with blind poet David Steele at dawn about sight loss. Simon also tries taking a simple journey blindfolded to experience walking without vision. Listen now.

Book | A new book, 'George Mayer-Marton's Murals & Mosaics' highlights the life and work of the Hungarian émigré artist — including his Crucifixion mural in Oldham's Holy Rosary Church, the focus of a current SAVE Britain's Heritage campaign which our David Barnett wrote about in January: ‘The race against time - and the elements - to save a hidden art treasure.

Easter | On Easter Sunday, join BBC Radio 3 at Manchester Cathedral for a live service of Choral Evensong at 3pm, featuring works by Handel, Stanford and Buxtehude. And it would be remiss not to say that The Mill’s local church — the beautiful and historic St Ann’s in Manchester city centre — is running Good Friday and Easter Sunday services, details of which you can find here.

Literature | Victoria Kennefick’s “daring” first book of poems Eat or We Both Starve has been described as “honest and fearless.” Join her and Carcanet poet and Irish Times critic Martina Evans for readings and discussion on Wednesday 7pm. Register here.

Listen | The Polyphonic Music Club at Stoller Hall will be featuring Castalian String Quartet on Thursday who will be playing works from Hadyn and Janáćek. And, separately, the BBC Philharmonic will be in concert from MediaCity UK on Wednesday at 7.30 pm. Featuring Bologne’s The Anonymous Lover, Haydn’s Symphony No 77, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 9. Listen on BBC Radio 3.

Letters to the editor

As a resident of Castleton who does not take it Covid death rate lightly, I would question whether or not the assessment made by this reporter is sufficiently well informed for such a conclusion to be reached. I have not conducted an extensive survey myself, but I do know many of my neighbours who, like me, are far from happy about the way so many people up and down our country are apparently sitting lightly to the prospect of yet a further 'lockdown' having to be imposed because of the overall outcome of a minority of people refusing to accept government guidance and advice on behaviour during a pandemic such as we are experiencing at this time. In fact, nobody I have had the opportunity to speak to during the last twelve months has been anything but anxious and even angry about the death rate here as in the rest of the country. I would say that most people do not take it lightly. Graham Marshall, Castleton

Thank you for reporting on Ahmed’s story in The Mill. It’s rare you get journalism about immigration that really listens to a human being’s story and doesn’t overlay it with politics and judgement. You allowed us to hear what his experiences have been and what an extraordinary journey he came on to get to this country and let us draw our conclusions about what it tells us about the systems we have. It will make me think differently about the young men (it does seem to be mostly men) who ride around the city delivering food. Gill Furness, Salford

Your story about the state of the office market in Manchester was well-researched and thought-provoking. I’m in the same boat as the property executive who responded to the KPMG study saying most companies wouln’’t reduce their office space by saying: “Bollocks - I don’t buy it.” I don’t buy it either, and I think if we don’t think hard about opening up our city centre to creative and community uses that artists and small businesses can actually afford, it will lose a lot of its dynamism. Scott Brown, Stockport

An ice-cream van and some great prams in 1965 Hulme. It was posted by u/HellsJuggernaut on the Manchester Reddit forum.

Obituary: Gill Wright 

Gill Wright was a heritage campaigner who was instrumental in the restoration of Manchester’s Victoria Baths. She dedicated 25 years of her life to finding funding for the Edwardian baths including renting it out to Peaky Blinders and Cold Feet film crews. Wright founded the Historic Pools of Britain campaign and travelled around the UK providing guidance to groups fighting to save community pools.

The Guardian’s obituary explains more:

Wherever Wright travelled, she carried a swimming costume in her bag. The last item on the agenda of every meeting of the Historic Pools of Britain campaign was always a dip. She was a coach for Northern Wave, an LGBTQ+ club, and taught thousands of children to swim at Manchester Splash.

Not everyone shared Wright’s enthusiasm. She once went to a Manchester city council meeting where one of the councillors proudly introduced himself as the person who had signed the death warrant for Victoria Baths. He certainly was not going to bring it back to life, he insisted. “We’ll see,” she said.

Gillian Meredith Wright, born 29 January 1959, died 3 March 2021.

We spoke to the FT’s star reporter Robert Smith, whose investigative reporting was influential in the collapse of Lex Grensill’s company this month. Our members-only story and podcast about Greensill and his links to Manchester are here.