In his first speech following the General Election, George Osborne promised "a revolution in the way we govern England". He chose Manchester as the venue for this speech as it gave him an opportunity to promote the Northern Powerhouse.
The Government's plans for devolution to cities are to be enshrined in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act, which is currently a Bill being considered by parliament. What the Chancellor is offering is to hand power from the centre to cities to give them greater control, including over transport. But in order to go down this route a city must put in place a city-wide elected mayor to work with local councils. Of this Mr. Osborne has said, "I will not impose this model on anyone. But nor will I settle for less."
Local involvement in the way rail services are operated is not new. The Passenger Transport Executives will remember a time when they were party of the franchise agreements for their areas but without funding their control and influence was probably not what they wanted. That said, what they achieved at the stations in "PTE-land" looked, to a casual observer, impressive. More recently, there have been some real steps to devolve rail passenger franchises. The ScotRail franchise is awarded by Transport Scotland, Transport for London lets the LOROL franchise and from 2017 the Welsh Government will assume full responsibility for the Wales and Borders franchise. There are also numerous examples of local authorities promoting and managing metro and light rail schemes.
Scotland, London and Wales are good examples of how franchising can be devolved. For it to work the relevant authority will need funding, they will need the necessary legal powers and they will need a geographic "patch".
The first two of these are relatively straightforward. Funding is a matter for agreement between central government and the local administration but given the rhetoric over the last year an aspirational local administration may well be pushing at an open door in Whitehall, particularly if this relieves central government of an existing responsibility.
Putting the necessary powers in place is also not insurmountable. The Railways Act of 1993 has, since 2005, given Scottish Ministers responsibility for franchise services in Scotland and there are other examples of powers being granted or obtained to make local transport work.
What is more challenging is having the appropriate geographic environment. Taking Manchester as an example, it of course controls its metro system, the Manchester Metrolink, but the rail services which serve Manchester – such as Virgin West Coast, Northern and TransPennine Express – are regional or national. They are unlikely to be delivered locally.
Looking at the franchise map, there may be some scope for some services to be managed locally – inner London services could be procured by Transport for London, for example – but the options are limited. Has devolution of rail franchising gone as far as it can?