Why has the Bee Network created an inequality that wasn't there before?
Permanent bus drivers complain that that temporary worker bees are being paid a third more an hour
Dear Millers — it’s been exactly a month since we published Daniel Timms’ thoughtful dissection of what the Bee Network might mean for Greater Manchester (and Burnham’s legacy). Today we’re taking a closer look: what does it mean for bus drivers — and why has it ushered in a pay disparity between permanent drivers and the worker bees who have joined the bus network temporarily?
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Your Mill briefing
Jewish schools in Greater Manchester have increased security due to worries about a rise in antisemitism toward children. It follows attacks by Hamas on Israel this past week that killed over 1,000 people, retaliatory attacks killed 830. John Dalziel, the headteacher at King David School in Crumpsall, advised students to take off their blazers in public. Local police patrols have also increased at schools around Greater Manchester.
Four people were arrested at a vigil for the victims of attacks by Hamas in Israel. In a tweet about the arrests, GMP said they were “not for supporting Palestine,” and that “the force draws a clear distinction between support for Palestine and support for the proscribed terrorist organisation Hamas.” The post was later deleted.
Places for Everyone, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s biggest development plan, entered the final stages of its consultation period on Wednesday. Local stakeholders will be able to have their say on the latest modifications to the plan, which include extending its deadline from 2037 to 2039 and building on a further 1,200 acres of greenbelt land.
In Wednesday’s newsletter, we asked GMCA how the cancellation of HS2 to Manchester will affect Places for Everyone, seeing the rail project is mentioned 85 times in the plan document, and certain allocations link in with it. A spokesperson said: “None of the growth assumptions underpinning the plan are predicated on HS2 and none of the allocations are reliant on its delivery.”
This next stop is Wonderwall: As part of the Beyond the Music conference, a set of talks that focus on the future of Manchester’s music scene, Metrolink announcements are currently being voiced by Liam Gallagher.
Theatre Diary: Our guide to what’s coming up in October
By John Tucker
A dynamic alternative musical theatre scene thrives in small venues in big cities like New York and London, and, luckily for us, also at The Hope Mill Theatre here in Manchester. Last month they staged Lizzie The Musical, a full bloodied punk-rock melodrama based on the story of Lizzie Borden, who was accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892. It was a terrific production. As well as entertainingly lurid action scenes delivered at full throttle, there were also scenes which explored Lizzie’s motives — plus, the witty lighting design was a treat. The next major production at Hope Mill is To Wong Fu The Musical, which starts its extended run on 21 October.
Meanwhile over at HOME, where the programming in both the main and studio theatres has been increasingly varied and adventurous recently, the Hull Decapitator is musically unmasked in Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder. The show — which satirises both the true-crime sector and influencer culture — was a hit at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer. No wonder: the magnificently drawled Hull vowels can be heard from here until the end of next week, and it’s a touching story of the friendship between two lonely young women.
Previews for Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Exchange begin on 20 October. The theatre is promoting this as “a love letter to Manchester” and “a vision of hope in troubled times”, which, given the desolate ending in a tomb strewn with fresh corpses, is a bit of a head scratcher. Nevertheless, the casting looks promising and the young director, Nicholai La Barrie, has an award-winning youth production of the play to his credit, so it can be assumed that he at least has read it before, even if the Exchange’s marketing team hasn’t.
Thanks to Simon Davies-Hall, the Miller whose recommendation in the comments following last month’s Diary, led me to 53Two to see Red Brick Theatre’s fine production of Pornography by Simon Stephens. Stephens, who was brought up in Stockport, is one of the UK’s most interesting contemporary dramatists, and this dark, gripping and ambitious state-of-the-nation play, first performed in 2007, felt just as resonant now.
What other shows are worth seeing in the coming weeks? I would love to hear more of your tips in the comments.
Why has the Bee Network created an inequality that wasn't there before?
By Mollie Simpson and Shikhar Talwar
Alana is rolling a cigarette when her Bee Network bus finally rolls into the station in Bolton. “Typical,” she says. “It’s 40 minutes late and, when I finally decide to have a cig, it turns up.”
“Nope, that’s mine,” says a guy holding a silver vape, taking a final drag. “Yep, that’s a 36, not a 37.”
Alana relights her cigarette, sighing. “This is nowhere near as organised as Newcastle,” she says. “It’s crazy. The first couple of weeks was insanity.”
Since the first yellow electric bus arrived in Farnworth at 4.30am around three weeks ago, Andy Burnham has been cheering on the Bee Network with all the fizz of a kid at Disney World. When he first showed off his achievement of bringing an entire transport network under public control, it seemed like more than just excitement at the possibilities for making Manchester better-connected; he talked about each bus as if he were in love with it. “These buses are going to improve air quality, cut noise pollution,” Burnham said in a video, pink in the cheeks against a backdrop of a row of glorious yellow. “Everything is going to be so much better with the Bee Network.”
In case you need a little recap, the Bee Network is Greater Manchester’s new franchised bus system. While private companies still operate the buses, the combined authority now dictates which routes they take and how much fares should cost. In September last year, single fares were reduced to £2, as a temporary measure to help people during the cost-of-living crisis. Under the new franchising system, the low prices are here to stay.
As Burnham will never tire of telling you, this new bus network is the most significant and visible example of what devolution can do, a brave new world only possible when local authorities are given proper investment and powers. But it’s easy to plaster a smile on when the camera’s rolling. What, inquiring minds want to know, has this experience been like for those out of the media spotlight, the ones who have to keep the buses running on time, even after everyone else has gone home?
Obviously, I’m talking about bus drivers. It wouldn’t be hard to find them; in fact, I could count on them coming to me. This week, I headed to a few bus stations in Wigan, Bolton, Bury, Salford and Manchester (the Bee Network doesn’t launch in Oldham and Rochdale until early next year, and isn’t expected to be rolled out in every GM borough until 2025) to ask for their thoughts.
It’s 3pm at Bolton bus station and I’m watching a man stare at his Bee Network app — it says his bus is due to arrive, but there’s an empty stand where it should be. Next to him, a woman in a high-vis jacket looks tired. “Are you a Bee Network driver?” I ask her. “Unfortunately,” she says, rolling her eyes. She politely explains she doesn’t really want to talk to the local paper, and suggests I try someone else.
A lot of drivers are familiar with these delays, which they put down to unprecedented demand. TfGM (Transport for Greater Manchester) are unable to share the latest data on passenger numbers but there seems to be a general consensus that, since the launch of the Bee Network, more people are flocking to the local bus stops than before.
The passengers I meet on my quest to interview drivers certainly act as anecdotal evidence for this claim. At a stop in Atherton, I meet a passenger named Opé, 23, who has started regularly taking buses since the Bee Network launched. She’d noticed more buses going down her road and felt encouraged by the fact that the service was becoming more frequent.
On the 36 bus from Manchester to Bolton, a passenger who is visually impaired says the Bee Network’s new accessibility features convinced him to ditch his usual commute and start taking the bus instead for the first time. “I love that the bus now has a voice announcing the stops,” he says. “Earlier, my blindness made me nervous to get the bus, not the case anymore though.”
But how have the drivers coped with this newfound influx of passengers? In the smoking area at the back of Bolton bus station, I find driver Alana chatting to her colleague Craig, a shy six-foot Scottish man with neck tattoos. She explains that the increasing passenger numbers made for a stressful few weeks, but that things seem to be calming down now. She’s looking forward to a bit of normality.
Alana starts teasing her colleague Mike about being a “lazy part-timer”. When I ask what she means, she explains that she’s actually a bus driver from Newcastle, contracted by her agency to work for the Bee Network on secondment until January. Mike, however, is a full-time bus driver employed by Go North West. When her bus finally does turn up and she sprints off, shouting a goodbye over her shoulder, Mike confides in me that he’s paid £14.30 an hour, whereas agency workers like Alana are paid £21 an hour, plus an £185 a week bonus.
The bus system wasn’t redesigned to improve its drivers’ pay, but it seems strange that the arrival of the lauded Bee Network has created an inequality that wasn’t there before.
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