Discover more from The Mill
Burnham gets his buses
Plus: The 'huge and undersung role' of Manchester’s social clubs in the British music industry
Dear Millers — welcome to this week’s briefing, which contains the usual cornucopia of important news, great culture, discerning recommendations and acerbic wit. It goes out to 37,932 readers. Yes, that’s right, we’re nearly at 38,000 Millers and as always, you can help us get there by sharing this newsletter with a few friends and encouraging them to join the list.
Today we’re looking at the launch of the Bee Network, the flagship project of Andy Burnham’s mayoralty. The very first Bee Network bus, the humble 521 from Blackrod to Little Lever, in Bolton, pulled into Farnworth bus station in the small hours of yesterday morning. It’s a big milestone in bringing Greater Manchester’s buses under public control for the first time in nearly 40 years, though in many ways the work is only just beginning.
We’ve also got an update on Mollie’s eyebrow-raising investigation into the recriminations surrounding Northern Fashion Week. “This story…With each new paragraph, my jaw dropped a little more,” tweeted Sunday Times columnist Terri White. “The Mill is doing God’s work on the gap between the city’s front and its reality.”
We’re only able to do journalism like this because we have an incredible community of paying members whose subscriptions give us the kind of regular, predictable revenue you need to invest in proper investigative work. We now have 2,527 members, who get eight extra editions every month, get to comment on our stories and come to our Mill Members Club events. if you’re not a member yet, there is no time like now — just click here to upgrade.
If you are a member, how about buying subscriptions for your team at work so that they can feel more engaged with what’s going on in Greater Manchester (and so you can talk about Mollie’s latest jaw-dropping scoop or Jack’s new long read while people are joining the Zoom call)? It’s vastly cheaper than buying gym memberships and will be used much more. Just hit that button below.
Over the weekend, Jack and Sophie headed out to Fallowfield to meet some students. There were freshers looking for societies to join, second years trying to disentangle incestuous friendship groups and third years fearing the bleak, tumble-weeded desolation that might await them beyond graduation.
The FT’s data guru John Burn-Murdoch gave us a lovely shout-out to his 468,000 followers this weekend, tweeting: “The Mill is one of the most interesting and impressive media startups of the last decade, and crucially one that’s doing really valuable and sustainable public service journalism.” He was sharing the link to our job ads, two of which closed yesterday but one of which is still very much open: our Head of Commercial role. After a slow start, we’re starting to get some great applications for this one, and we’d love your help sharing it around to talented people. Applications close on Sunday.
190 years of high-quality discussion
From today’s sponsor: The Manchester Statistical Society may sound like an exclusive club for mathematicians but fear not — it is in fact a thriving forum for current social and economic issues and one of the city’s longest-running institutions. The society has just celebrated its 190th birthday, having been founded during the Industrial Revolution by a group of friends who were concerned about widespread poverty in Manchester and saw the collection and discussion of statistics as a step towards social reform. There are upcoming talks about the UK's housing shortage, the impact of the pandemic on children, and Greater Manchester's carbon budget — check out the full list of events, and click here to book your place.
Our sponsorship slots are all booked up in October but we have some free in November and December. If you’d like to get your message out to our nearly 38,000 readers across Greater Manchester and give a great injection of support to our journalism at the same time, check out our ads page and get in touch.
This week’s weather
This week’s forecast comes from our local weatherman Martin Miles, who says we can expect strong winds and heavy rain as the Met Office officially names Storm Agnes.
Tuesday 🌦️ Dry with some bright spells during the morning. Turning windy with heavy showers during the afternoon. Relatively warm. Max 19C.
Wednesday ⚠️ Windy with rain arriving from the west after lunchtime. Disruption is possible with wind gusts potentially exceeding 50 mph locally. Yellow weather warning for wind is in place. Max 18C.
Thursday 🌦️ Windy with occasional sunny spells and blustery showers. Max 17C.
Friday ⛅️ Bright and mostly dry as high pressure ridges in. Breezy. Max 17C.
Weekend ⛅️ Mainly settled thanks to high pressure. Plenty of dry weather and bright/sunny spells. Temperatures in the high teens.
You can find the latest forecast at Manchester Weather on Facebook — daily forecasts are published at 6.15am.
The big story: After four decades, Greater Manchester’s buses come under public control
Top line: At 4:30 am yesterday morning, the first franchised bus to operate in Greater Manchester in 37 years pulled into Farnworth bus station in Bolton. It was the outcome of years of negotiating with the government — and of court battles with disgruntled private operators — to bring Greater Manchester’s bus services under public control. As Andy Burnham tweeted to welcome the bus, “it turned up!”
Context: The franchising — or “re-regulation” — of buses has been a priority of Burnham’s since he took office in 2017. Getting the power to regulate buses again was one of the reasons Greater Manchester’s council leaders accepted the devolution deal that created Burnham’s job. It’s said that former city leader Sir Richard Leese would regularly remind the mayor: "the whole reason you exist is to do buses.”
The launch of the network on Sunday was met with excitement. Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan, said: “Fabulous to see @BeeNetwork buses zooming around Wigan this morning… Well done @AndyBurnhamGM. This is what taking back control looks like.”
The Bee Network, as it is known, is a franchised system. Since the 80s, buses outside of London were run by private companies who would prioritise the most profitable routes, meaning some areas lost out on reliable public transport. The franchised model means that, while private companies will still operate the buses, the routes they take and the fares they charge will be decided by the combined authority. And the operators have to bid to win the various franchises.
As our policy reporter Daniel Timms put it in his very informative piece about the economics of franchising:
One simple way of thinking about it is that under the current system, operators compete within the market, whereas under franchising, operators compete for the market.
The combined authority’s control of the bus routes means they can be better connected to the Metrolink and the region’s cycle networks to create a more seamless way for commuters to get around Greater Manchester.
But that is still some way off. Sunday marked the first step in the franchising journey, with the north of the region taking priority.
Franchised buses — in the Bee Network’s yellow and black liveries — will now run in Wigan, Bolton, Salford, parts of Bury and just a sliver of Manchester.
They’ll branch out into Oldham and Rochdale in 2024, and arrive in south GM in 2025. The map below spells that all out.
A Guardian editorial called the 1980s privatisation decision “ideologically driven bunkum” and Burnham says it was a “disaster” for Manchester and other northern cities. Whereas passenger numbers shot up in the capital, they halved across Greater Manchester.
One worry is whether all the buzz around the Bee Network — pun intended — will bring those passenger numbers back up, especially now the system is being heavily funded by the public purse: single fares are currently being kept at £2 with the help of central government funding, and franchising overall is expected to cost £135m.
One source involved in the network’s rollout told Daniel for his piece: “The mayor is very much in the category of ‘if we build it, they will come.’”
Making it happen has meant transport workers spending Saturday night switching over IT networks, radios and tracking technology to facilitate a seamless transition to the new system. Drivers are also being moved around by franchised operators to ensure a smooth launch. Go North West, for example, is borrowing 85 drivers from its sister companies around the country for three months to keep the Bee Network going while new drivers are trained.
Bottom line: As we said in our recent piece, how the Bee Network pans out will be Burnham’s biggest test. “Can a mayor — and a devolved administration — who are very good at messaging and public relations show that they are also good at running things?” we asked. “Burnham has made a big deal of the importance of improving public transport, which many people agree is key to spreading economic prosperity and job opportunities outside of the central urban core. But now it’s time for action.”
Your Mill briefing
On Friday we published an exclusive story about Siobhan Clare O’Donnell — the founder and CEO of Northern Fashion Week — who is accused by various workers and contractors of not paying her bills. In our last interview with O’Donnell, she suggested that everyone owed money would be paid back by Monday (i.e. today) and asked that we fact-check this with our sources. We have seen screenshots from bank statements confirming that one ex-staff member and one freelance communications strategist were each paid £1,000 this morning. Gayle Harrison, the CEO of a sustainable fashion brand called Untagged, says she also received a 50% refund for her pitch fee this morning — on the basis that O’Donnell promised the event would bring Harrison’s business to an audience of 9,000 people when in reality there were low hundreds in attendance. In emails seen by The Mill, O’Donnell says this is a “first instalment” and that the rest of the money will be sent over the next four months. However, O’Donnell appears to have reneged on her promise to resolve all her payment disputes. In another email seen by The Mill, she says that “we are only paying individuals who we don’t have a slander and defamation case open with,” and that some people can expect to hear from lawyers soon. Want to speak to Mollie about this story or related issues? Please get in touch.
The row over HS2 reaching Manchester continues with former chancellor George Osborne saying it would be a “gross act of vandalism” if the government decides to scrap the northern leg of HS2 connecting Birmingham and Manchester. Last week’s briefing covered how the spiralling cost of the project is giving the government cold feet. Andy Burnham and Manchester City Council leader Bev Craig have today written to the Prime Minister to express their concern that scrapping the leg would exacerbate the very north-south divide the government has committed to fix under its levelling up agenda. “We believe the North of England needs new North-South and East-West rail infrastructure”, they write, “and should not be forced to choose between them in the same way that London hasn't been forced [to make] such a choice.”
Oldham Council’s CEO Harry Catherall will not retire at the end of 2023 as intended after a search for his successor failed. Council leader Arooj Shah said after a months-long recruitment process, candidates didn’t “meet the level of our aspirations and ambitions.” Catherall now will stay in the job but under different working arrangements.
“I mean, a lot of people want to get away from Salford,” says the playwright Shelagh Delaney in this short film about her hometown, “and they can’t for lots of different reasons, but for me, it’s always a question of coming back.” The film was published on this day in 1960.
Home of the week
This rather grand five-bedroom period home in Withington just came on the market for £750,000. It has a generous garden, high ceilings, stained glass windows and exposed brickwork.
Our favourite reads
A lovely tribute to the working men’s clubs of the North in the Economist, which argues that private social clubs in Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds played a “huge and undersung role in the British music industry”, plucking rock bands like Def Leppard out of obscurity. The piece argues that after decades of decline, the clubs are now “back at the heart of grassroots music”, with venues like the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds and the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge enjoying something of a renaissance.
“Labour governments shouldn’t be judged by how much they spend” — The New Statesman
The task of “schmoozing businesses over breakfast” on behalf of the Labour Party falls to shadow business and trade secretary Jonathan Reynolds, who is MP for Stalybridge and Hyde. Reynolds, who is said to have a small tattoo of the Manchester bee on his wrist and projects “a kind of reliability that seems very Brand Starmer”, is not “queasy about the private sector in the slightest”.
Bill Keller, former editor of the New York Times, writes an in-depth piece about the state of British prisons, of “noisy mazes of cold, dark cells, broken windows, shabby common areas and communal toilets,” that trigger “echoes of American dysfunction”. The 25 days of violent protest at Strangeways in 1990 spurred an inquiry that would generate some “short-lived improvements” but a subsequent tough-on-crime policy brought these reforms to a halt.
Our to do list
🏛️ Founders and Funders: Slavery and the building of a university is a new exhibition at the John Rylands Library that uncovers how profits from slavery funded the cultural development of Manchester. It’s free to visit.
⭐ Jodrell Bank’s autumn Dome feature ‘We Are Stars’ recreates a dark night sky, scattered with stars and planets, immersing you in our beautiful solar system and using animation to show how the universe might have begun. You can visit every weekday, 11am or 3pm, and tickets are £4.
📚 The Manchester Lit and Phil is hosting a discussion about the legacy of the slave trade at the Anthony Burgess Centre on Wednesday evening, based on a new report that examines society’s links with the transatlantic slave trade. Tickets are £15 for non-members.
🎶 The Spinning Top in Stockport is known for intimate live music nights that “capture the DIY creative spirit of the town” and showcase talented up-and-coming musicians to a wider audience. Each Wednesday, they host a live jam session that’s free to attend and encourages everyone to get up on stage and do their thing. More info here.
🎭 A View from the Bridge is showing at the Bolton Octagon for one more week, telling the tragic story of a forbidden romance between two cousins on the Brooklyn waterfront. Tickets here.
😋 Our foodie highlight this week is Exhibition, the grand foodhall on Peter Street which is home to chefs from three great Manchester restaurants: indulgent Italian pasta place Sud (formerly known as Sugo), Basque-style restaurant Baratxuri and the Scandi-inspired Osma, which has been featured in the Michelin Guide. Plus, there’s live music, free parties from Wednesday to Sunday every week and a great selection of cocktails. More info here.
Coming up this week for Mill members, we have an excellent review of Great Expectations at the Royal Exchange and a remarkable story of financial meltdown at a much-publicised local organisation that we cannot say more about until it drops on Thursday morning. If you work at that organisation, get in touch! And if it’s not the one we are investigating, all the better for everyone.