Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, has defeated a legal challenge of his plans to bring the city’s bus network back into public control in a closely watched court ruling which could pave the way for other northern English cities to press ahead with similar schemes.
The High Court on Wednesday dismissed a legal challenge by bus operators Stagecoach and Rotala which claimed that the decision-making process followed by Burnham and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), which represents 10 metropolitan borough councils, had been flawed.
However, Mr Justice Julian Knowles rejected their case and ruled that the decision-making about “fundamental reform of bus services in one of the most populous regions of the country” had not been “unlawful or irrational”.
Bus networks outside London have been deregulated for more than 30 years, often leading to disjointed and unreliable services that have resulted in steep price rises for passengers.
Burnham has made control and reform of Greater Manchester’s bus network a top priority for his second mayoral term, seeking to create a London-style system in which local leaders have control over timetables, fares and ticketing.
The High Court ruling is being closely watched by local authorities in Liverpool, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire, which are considering similar reforms.
Stagecoach and Rotala brought the legal challenge in May last year after Burnham announced in March 2021 that he planned to bring Greater Manchester’s bus network back into public control by 2025.
The operators sought a judicial review of Burnham’s decision-making around the reforms, which will cost the GMCA £134.5mn.
In their legal challenge they claimed that the GMCA and Burnham had acted “unlawfully” by relying on a “flawed” consultation on bus franchising during the Covid-19 pandemic. They said the consultation process failed to comply with the requirements of the Transport Act 2000, which requires approvals for franchising schemes to be supported by robust evidence.
Burnham and the GMCA claimed that their decision-making process was lawful and argued that their conclusions were justified in light of uncertainties over future passenger numbers because of the pandemic.
The ruling was welcomed by Burnham, who called it “truly fantastic news” and said it was a “green light for the north to retake control of its bus and public transport system”.
“We know that this result is important not just for Greater Manchester, but for other city-regions too. We hope that this judgment today will pave the way for them to progress with their ambitions to bring buses under public control,” he said.
Stagecoach said it was “disappointed” by the ruling, and added that its case was never about the wider principle of mayoral authorities being able to make decisions on bus franchising.
“It was our view that the process followed by Greater Manchester Combined Authority in assessing the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on its bus franchising plans did not meet those legal requirements. Nevertheless, we accept the decision of the court,” it said.
Rotala described the ruling as “extremely disappointing”. In a statement, it said: “The board still believes these decisions to be irrational and/or unlawful and is in the process of applying for permission to appeal the decision to the court of appeal.”