Conservative James Palmer was responding on Twitter to a question after the directly elected mayor in Manchester, Labour’s Andy Burnham, announced on Thursday (March 25) that his region’s buses will be brought under public control in a London-style franchise system.
Asked for his position on the development, Mr Palmer said: “Already happening. Franchise system will be delivered in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. We have secured the seed funding from government that will deliver franchising”.
But the statement was met with scepticism by his critics, who claimed there has been a lack of progress on the issue in Cambridgeshire, and noting the timing of the comment so close to the mayoral election in May.
The Liberal Democrat mayoral candidate, Aidan Van de Weyer, said Mr Palmer’s “claims that he is about to deliver franchising are hollow”.
Mr Palmer told the Local Democracy Reporting Service said the financial impact of the pandemic on the bus operators offers the opportunity to accelerate plans to move to a franchise system.
“We are heading towards being at this time next year ready to deliver that system. It takes quite a while,” he said, “Manchester have been working on their franchising system for about eight years I think”.
He said there will be more details at the bus strategy meeting coming up on April 27, ahead of an expectation of presenting an agreement to government in June with the bus operators on developing two potential options – franchising and enhanced partnerships.
And Mr Palmer said the ambition is to release a business strategy in April next year, which he said would be the “last hurdle” before delivering the strategy to be agreed through that process with the bus operators and government.
He acknowledged that there are factors outside of his control as part of the process of moving towards a franchise model, but the mayor said his belief is franchising “is definitely going to happen” in Cambridgeshire, adding “but we have to go through the government process”.
“The government process is not a closed process. We have to offer options through that process. But the drive from me is to deliver a franchise system,” he said.
Labour’s candidate for mayor, Nik Johnson, said he has held “several” meetings with his Labour colleague, the mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, and that bus franchising is at the top of his agenda.
Cllr Johnson said: “Manchester’s buses being brought back into public control is simply the best news.
“I am campaigning all the way for similar plans for the Combined Authority of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough – it is top of the tree for my mayoral pledges.
“As mayor I will provide a service that is reliable, affordable, sustainable, accessible and accountable.”
Lib Dem Cllr Van de Weyer said: “Bus services Cambridgeshire and Peterborough just aren’t doing the job we need, with limited timetables, complex tickets and polluting vehicles.
“The decline in usage can only be reversed if we get more direct local control over buses.
“The current options for reforming bus services, like franchising, are deeply flawed. But they are all we have, so we need to push forward with them urgently.
“Greater Manchester is leading the way on this, and it is so disappointing that we are lagging behind here”.
He said the Conservative mayor has “spent the last four years dragging his feet. His claims that he is about to deliver franchising are hollow. The was an underspend on the bus reform budget of £1.6 million this year. The problem isn’t lack of funds, it’s the absence of leadership and political will”.