North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Buses: levelling down starts in March

The levelling down of North East bus services starts on Sunday March 27 with cuts on routes in Newcastle and North Tyneside, including some running into Northumberland. Service reductions in Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and elsewhere in the region are expected to follow.

Huw Lewis, Customer Services Director for Nexus, the Tyne & Wear Passenger Transport Executive, said: “The cuts being made by commercial companies as covid-relief funding ends represent the biggest single change to local bus services for 35 years’.

Local politicians have been warning of the cuts, and this website has been reporting them, since November.

The service cuts being made by the area’s three commercial bus operators – Arriva, Go North East and Stagecoach, which operate 90% of buses in the area – will coincide with the withdrawal of the government’s Bus Recovery Grant, a Covid-19 relief measure, from the end of March even though passenger numbers are still only 75% of pre-pandemic levels.

Nexus has stepped in with a £4.5m rescue package funded by the Tyne & Wear Joint Transport Committee – and therefore ultimately by taxpayers – but it is not enough to save all threatened services.

Huw Lewis said the rescue package seeks to make sure as many people as possible still have a local bus they can catch to get to shops, the GP surgery and other essential services.   

‘We are also linking the new publicly-funded services we are creating and taking on with the high-frequency bus routes commercial companies continue to operate or Metro’ he said.  ‘As well as recasting our own pattern of services we have worked in partnership with the bus companies who have also revised their changes in places to better maintain local connections.

‘The scale of the changes means we are not able to provide a like-for-like replacement to every route being cut, but we can seek to keep local people connected.  We’re publishing our package so people have a chance to give feedback as we shape these new services for the future.’

Councillor Carl Johnson, Deputy Mayor at North Tyneside and chair of the JTC Tyne & and Wear subcommittee, said: ‘I know how essential these services are to communities in my own ward and across North Tyneside and that is why we, along with other local authorities across Tyne & Wear, have stepped up to provide extra funding to Nexus so they can pull this rescue package together.  

‘However, even this cash injection will not be enough to replace all routes like-for-like, meaning people may have to walk further to find a bus, there will be less direct links to city centres and key employment sites and less frequent services across many routes. 

‘The government must recognise this and continue to provide financial support to bus companies until passenger numbers are closer to pre-pandemic levels. Across the North East we have seen 75% of passengers return to services, underlining just how critical these buses are to our communities.’

The full list of service changes planned from March 27 can be viewed on the Nexus website here.

COMMENT

The improvement of public services, especially in places where they are weakest, is one of the four core objectives of the Levelling Up White Paper (p. 18) published on February 2. Yet the planned bus cuts show there is a limit to the government’s commitment in this respect. It is evidently not even willing to find the money to maintain services at their present level, partly perhaps because it knows it faces similar demands from other parts of the country, such as Manchester.

The ambitions North East councillors had of getting £804m from the government to improve bus services now look even more unrealistic than they did three months ago when this website warned that they should be taken with a pinch of salt..

Ministers seem to be banking on other, much less expensive ways of convincing people in needy areas that they are fulfilling their election pledge to level up parts of the country that have been left behind. Enhancing pride in place is another of the White Paper’s objectives, and the one on which the Levelling Up Fund itself is focused. The Fund is doling out relatively small grants of around £20m on civic improvements which it hopes will quite quickly make people feel better about their home city, town or village.

The same thinking was probably behind the £75m over three years for 109 ‘Levelling Up for Culture Places’ announced by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and reported here yesterday. No one yet knows exactly how much the North East’s share will be, but around £2m a year seems like a reasonable back-of-an-envelope calculation.

Even this small amount will of course be welcome, and make people feel better about their home town if it means a much-loved cultural asset like a museum, gallery, library or creative project is saved or enhanced – but not if people cannot easily get there because their bus service has been cut.