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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Tory Minister cautions against proposal to bring North East’s bus services under public control

A Tory minister has urged caution over plans that could see the North East’s bus services brought back under public control

The new £4 billion devolution deal for Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, and County Durham will give a regional mayor the power to take control of bus routes, timetables, and fares back from private companies under a franchise model.

It is expected that the new mayor will follow the likes of Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham in pursuing such a scheme, with frontrunners for the job having pledged it in their manifestos.

MP Richard Holden. Image: Wikipedia

However, roads minister Richard Holden warned on Friday that the idea presented an “inherent risk” to taxpayers and urged mayoral hopefuls not to “get side tracked with the nature of the operation” and to instead focus on practical measures to upgrade bus services now.

Mr Holden, who is the MP for North West Durham, was speaking on a visit to confirm £45m of Government funding for bus services in the North East – the final allocation from a £163.5m package that was originally announced in April 2022.

The minister told the Local Democracy Reporting Service that different regions were suited to different public transport models, citing success in Cornwall that has seen bus passenger numbers jump to 110% of pre-pandemic levels while operating an ‘enhanced partnership’ (EP) between bus companies and local councils – a system that the North East currently operates.

In the North East, bus patronage is thought to be around 80% of what it was before Covid-19 hit and there have been fears that operators will soon make more substantial cuts to services.

Mr Holden said: “What I would say is that this [franchising] shouldn’t be an ideological thing, this should be about working with local operators wherever possible and getting more democratic accountability. That is why we have backed the EP model and also said to areas that if they want to go on franchising then they can.”

He added: “The farebox risk if you do see a drop in numbers or they don’t go in the direction you want  is fully on local taxpayers if the franchising model is pursued. That comes with an inherent risk.

“I think it’s horses for courses – we have seen it work well in some areas and seen the EP model work well in some areas. Operators like Go North East I have always found really good to work with, they have been very approachable at a local MP level and at a ministerial level. I would say don’t go down the ideological route, let’s go for whatever works for the North East.”

The £45m confirmed on Friday will go towards a Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) designed to make buses faster, cheaper, and more reliable, something Mr Holden said he hoped would produce a “sea change” in patronage.

Its measures include a new £1 flat fare for under-22s, free travel for care leavers up to the age of 25, a new public transport app and website, and adult day tickets giving unlimited travel on all buses, Metro trains, and the Shields Ferry for no more than £6.80.

Speaking to the Northern Agenda podcast this week, Labour mayoral candidate Kim McGuinness cited bus franchising as a top priority if she is elected next May.

Kim McGuinness Image: Northumbria Police

The current North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll also pledged to take public control of bus services in his manifesto, before he was controversially excluded from the Labour selection contest.

Ms McGuinness said:  “One of the things that I’ve said absolutely upfront is that we will get to work very urgently on bringing buses into back into public control. And you know what, it’s not the sexiest thing in the manifesto.

“But it’s probably one of the things that makes the most difference to the most people.

More people use buses than any other type of public transport put together. And we’re the region that has faced the biggest cuts to our bus services.

“And so in order to deliver that as quickly as possible, we’ve got to get to work day one in starting that. And I’ve got to be honest, it will be a process, but it’s got to be, day one marker in the sand ‘this is what we’re going to do’, as well as looking at how we kick off this plan to really tackle child poverty in the region.”

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