North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Bright future for buses – but not in the North East

Here’s an unexpected headline: ‘The future looks bright for buses across British cities’.

Startled by the optimism after becoming accustomed to talk of bus cuts from leaders in the North East, I read on to the sub head: ‘Recent big decisions mean the populations of Manchester, Liverpool and South Yorkshire can hopefully look forward to cheaper, greener, faster and more reliable services’.

And Newcastle and the North East? Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the region was not mentioned at all in the blog by Jovana Lalic on the website of the Centre for Cities.

Followers of this website will know why: the anticipated bright future is based on bus franchising, a regime available only to city regions with devolution deals. And that does not include the North East (apart from a partial deal in North of Tyne).

The bright future has been made possible by a recent High Court victory for Greater Manchester Combined Authority giving the green light for franchising, as reported and discussed here on March 11. Liverpool and South Yorkshire have acted quickly to follow Manchester’s lead, reports Lalic.

That is not to say there are not difficulties ahead, focused not surprisingly on funding: ‘[I]f anything’, writes Lalic, ‘these new models will require additional central and/or local funding streams to be considered.’

Still, Manchester, Liverpool and South Yorkshire are one big step ahead of the North East towards getting a much improved bus network. The best news the North East can enjoy is of a temporary reprieve from some of the imminent cuts in services it is facing, as reported in ChronicleLive.

Its only hope of a bright future for its buses short of an unlikely further government hand-out is a new devolution deal covering Northumberland and Tyne & Wear as soon as possible.

North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll has spoken publicly of his wish for a deal and  Newcastle’s departing leader, Councillor Nick Forbes, is reportedly spending his last few weeks in office trying to negotiate one.

But it is Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland – the three councils south of the river that rejected devolution in 2016 – that hold the key. Their leaders have said little or nothing in public about their current position.

With council elections coming up in early May, that is not good enough. Voters have a right to know what is going on and an opportunity for debate. Devolution should be an election issue. Behind-closed-doors discussions between council leaders and their party political groups followed by a public rubber stamping of their private decision will not do.