Don’t get too excited over bus plan yet

(This is an updated version of a report first published on October 23)

In what will be the first big test of political commitment to levelling up the North East since the 2019 general election, councillors are expected this week to approve ambitious and wide-ranging plans to improve the region’s bus services.

The North East Joint Transport Committee (JTC) meets on Tuesday to discuss a three-year bus service improvement plan (BSIP) to revolutionise the network from Berwick to Barnard Castle at a cost of more than £800m over three years.

If the government allocates the funding and the plan is implemented it will be the first sign that ministers and councillors are serious about collaborating to level up the North East on the scale needed, following the comparatively small-scale ad hoc investments so far, such as the Towns Fund.

But already there are worrying signs that the vision of a faster, cleaner, safer, more frequent, more modern and cheaper bus network will be snatched away with the ink hardly dry – because the government is unwilling to fund a region that is unwilling to do a comprehensive devolution deal.

In Tees Valley, meanwhile, where there is a devolution deal, local politicians are already celebrating an anticipated £310m share of a multi-billion pound transport fund expected to be announced in the Budget on Wednesday.

 BUS SERVICE IMPROVEMENT PLAN

The North East BSIP is the region’s response to the National Bus Strategy (NBS) and its route to securing a share of a £3bn competitive fund set up by the government under the NBS.

It would help implement the JTC’s objectives, to be delivered through a so-called Enhanced Partnership (EP) with bus operators due to come into operation in April 2022.

The BSIP includes £495.6m for capital spending on new bus priority infrastructure on 17 main routes; waiting facilities; low-emission buses; and IT equipment including Wi-Fi and charging points on all vehicles.

There would be new bus stations at Alnwick, Durham, Bishop Auckland and in Newcastle city centre, new bus access to North Shields Fish Quay and the International Advanced Manufacturing Park (IAMP) at Sunderland/South Tyneside and more park-and-ride sites.

Another £184.7 million is needed for revenue to support the introduction of lower, simplified fares and expanded route networks, including a daily region-wide fare cap; multi-mode, multi-operator tickets; a special deal for those aged under 19; weekly, monthly, annual, flexi and student discount tickets; a care leavers’ concession; a guarantee for wheelchair users; and turnaround cleaners at bus stations.

Interurban Expresses and buses on Superbus routes would run up to every five minutes, while rural routes would be tailored to the specific requirements of the communities they serve, with buses running at least every two hours on Monday to Saturday during the day.

The remaining £123.6m in the BSIP is needed to subsidise the continuation of existing services in light of Covid-related financial shortfalls; ridership is currently only about 75% of pre-pandemic levels.

An official report to be discussed by the JTC on Tuesday warns: ‘In order to avoid major funding shortfalls in the local bus network – and the inevitable reductions in services that would follow – it is essential that we secure government revenue support through the BSIP…

‘If the amount of funding provided is less than the amount sought, work will be carried out by the Partnership [with bus operators] to establish which of the proposals in this BSIP is affordable, and to what extent.

‘This BSIP should therefore be read as a statement of what our region would like to achieve in order to improve bus services and to grow the use of buses; however, the extent to which those improvements will be delivered in practice is wholly reliant on the amount of funding that is allocated’.

COMMENT

Already this weekend reports were circulating in the media about government plans to fund transport in city regions expected to be announced in the Budget on Wednesday – reports that were both alarming for the North East and confusing.

The confusion arises because the JTC has been preparing its BSIP as the basis for bidding for a share of £3bn for bus improvements first announced by the Prime Minister. This weekend’s reports suggest other sums will be available – £5.9bn or £6.9bn – though over five years, not three, and not just for buses but for trains, trams and cycling as well.

It is alarming because the list of places due to receive shares of the money noticeably omits Newcastle and the North East. The BBC names Greater Manchester, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Liverpool City Region, South Yorkshire, West of England and Tees Valley – all places with devolution deals and elected mayors.

The BBC’s report carries sufficient detail to look authoritative and is supported by the fact that Tory politicians in Tees Valley are already openly bragging about their £310m. Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen told the Northern Echo the funding means the region is getting its fair share.

For once Mayor Houchen’s bullish rhetoric was outdone. Matt Vickers, Conservative MP for Stockton South, told the Echo: ‘The good news just keeps rolling in. This whopping and welcome sum that’s coming directly to the Tees Valley will be spent on levelling up infrastructure and transport’.

Even if the JTC – which is the local transport authority (LTA) for the North East’s seven councils covering Northumberland, Durham and Tyne & Wear – does pick up some crumbs for its BSIP or other transport improvements, they will be nothing like what it could have accessed had the councils agreed to do a comprehensive devolution deal like every other city region in England.  

Devolution would open up the possibility of bus franchising, as operates in London and is being planned by Mayor Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. Franchising has advantages over an EP as was explained to the JTC in June:

‘Under an EP, the operators remain free to set the price for their own single operator ticket products; and these can be used to compete with the regional multi-operator tickets.

‘An EP scheme can be used to set requirements on operators to limit the frequency or specify the timing of services on routes that are considered to be over-provided. This may help to make efficiency savings across the network. The NBS suggests that resources freed up from over-provided routes could then be used to boost under-provision elsewhere.

However, the EP scheme cannot compel operators to provide any additional services or make changes to existing services outside of the above cases.

‘Given the current uncertainty around post-Covid patronage recovery, it is unclear what appetite operators would have or what mechanisms government consider would be available to LTAs to ensure that freed-up resources are put towards the delivery of a more comprehensive “socially necessary” network of services.

‘An EP is essentially a negotiated document between the LTA and local bus operators, with considerable flexibility to include measures that deliver benefits to passengers. However, there may be limitations on what members may wish to see included in the EP in terms of compliance with competition legislation and commercial viability for operators.’

‘In a franchising scheme’ councillors were told ‘the LTA determines the details of the services to be provided; where they run, when they run, the standards of the services and the fares charged. Typically bus operators provide their services under contract to the LTA and no other services can operate in the franchised area without the agreement of the franchising authority.

‘The automatic power to introduce a bus franchising scheme is currently only available to mayoral combined authorities (MCAs). LTAs (other than MCAs) that wish to pursue franchising would need to seek the approval of the Secretary of State for Transport. The NBS states that such authorities would need to satisfy the Secretary of State that they have the capacity and resources to deliver franchising’.

This website warned on June 19 that the North East was going to have to settle for a second-best plan to improve bus services as a result of not having a devolution deal. It is now beginning to appear that there is not even going to much funding available for an EP.

The bus service improvements in the plan are ambitious and wide-ranging, and if implemented would give the region a public transport network to be proud of. They would play an important part in turning the dream of levelling up into reality. But they will be of no use to the people of the North East if there isn’t the money to implement them.