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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Kim McGuinness starts work as North East mayor – and kicks off bid to take control over buses

Kim McGuinness has started work as the new mayor of the North East – and has immediately set plans in motion to take the region’s buses back under public control.

The 38-year-old was elected last week as the mayor of a new combined authority stretching across Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, and Durham, as the Labour candidate saw off a challenge from independent rival Jamie Driscoll.

And on day one of her new job on Tuesday, she confirmed that a major shake-up of the North East’s public transport is in the works.

The new mayor has the power to franchise the region’s bus services – meaning that, while bus operators will still be contracted to run services, control over fares, routes, and timetables will be in public hands rather than those of private companies.

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) from her new Newcastle city centre office in the Lumen building on Tuesday morning, Ms McGuinness announced that she has already ordered her officers to begin the first steps in the franchising process.

The former Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner said: “It has been a really busy weekend preparing for everything and it is nerve-racking. I think it will take a while for it to sink in, but I am also really excited.

“It is a really big time for the region as we start to take power back into our own hands and make our own decisions. Already this morning I have instructed the organisation to start looking at how we bring our buses under public control.

“That was a key pledge through the campaign period and when I spoke to people it was a big concern for a lot of people in most parts of our region. The majority of public transport journeys are taken by bus, yet in the last 12 years we have lost a third of services. It needs sorting and we have started that process on day one.”

Ms McGuinness and Mr Driscoll had both made taking public control over bus services a key pledge of their election campaigns, with such a model already in use in Greater Manchester and the likes of Liverpool and West Yorkshire set to follow suit.

The new mayor admitted that the reorganisation would “take a long time” and that she would have to work with bus companies to deliver improvements to services in the meantime, but said she was “hopeful” of the process being quicker than the six-year slog endured in Greater Manchester.

She added: “I have spoken to the operators during the campaign. I don’t think this is a move that will surprise anybody. But I want to work with them. This is not a combative thing, it is just what needs to happen in our region to improve public transport.

“And in the meantime we are going to have to work together to improve services as they currently stand because too many people are let down by a bus service that just isn’t there anymore. That prevents them from reaching their true potential at work or from seeing friends or family as often as they want or, in the worst case scenario, prevents young people from being able to access education.”

Ms McGuinness has moved into the Lumen office previously occupied by Mr Driscoll in his role as North of Tyne mayor, which has been abolished to make way for the new, larger mayoral authority.

She told the LDRS that setting up a commission to reinvigorate the North East’s high streets, tackling child poverty, and building more social housing were among her top priorities.

Asked what she hoped to achieve in her first 100 days in the job, she replied: “I would like to be some way down the path of knowing what we are going to be doing about the buses, with a clear action plan around our high streets, housing, and child poverty.

“But one of the big things about this is also talking up the region – people will see a lot more of that. I think this is the best place in the world and it was clear throughout the campaign that other people think that too. Everybody loves the region, but we have to be talking about it nationally and internationally.

“That is what will attract visitors and investment and put us on the map in the way that other parts of the country like Manchester, Leeds, and London are but we just aren’t. We need that voice.”

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