North East buses: levelling down again

North East bus users face another swathe of cuts, this time affecting services in Tyne and Wear South, County Durham and the Tyne Valley.

This time it is Go North East that has announced reductions, which it plans to introduce on July 24 and which follow those introduced by the region’s bus operators in Newcastle and North Tyneside in March.

On that occasion the Tyne and Wear Joint Transport Committee (JTC) stepped in with £4.5m of council tax money to save some services, and it may do so again. The government also came up with £150m nationally to extend the Covid-19 recovery period until October, but is not expected to repeat the offer.

Go North East said: ‘Work continues to rebuild passenger numbers across our network, but we’re now at the point where it’s clear some services won’t recover to the point of being viable without changes or external support.

‘Given the huge changes in the way many people are working and living, including things like home working and online shopping, it is only right that services are adapted to efficiently meet new patterns of demand.

‘We are now in a position where we need to look at making changes to ensure that our bus network is sustainable. We are working closely with local authorities on any possible replacement options where there are reductions in services, although noting their budget challenges.’

Go North East is conducting an online consultation survey until May 31.

COMMENT

This is a far cry from last autumn, when the JTC was talking ambitiously – over-ambitiously, this website has argued – about an £804m bus service improvement plan for which it wanted government funding. The North East did well to get £163.5m and Tobyn Hughes, managing director of Nexus, the Tyne and Wear passenger transport executive, hailed it at the time as ‘great news for the region’.

The money is earmarked: £73m capital to prioritise buses on busy routes and £89m  revenue to support improved fares and services for local people.

Angry local people seeing services being cut may well ask why some of that money cannot be used to preserve the services they already have. If £4.5m could make a difference in Newcastle and North Tyneside in March surely £163.5m could make a big difference in Tyne and Wear South, County Durham and the Tyne Valley in July and still leave a lot over for prioritising and improving.

Bus users may also ask whether it would not make a difference if the North East had a devolution deal covering the whole of Northumberland and Tyne & Wear – though probably no longer with Durham, which is considering its own deal.

For we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that, as Go North East says, travel patterns have changed as a result of home working and online shopping, and bus services doubtless need to change with them.

A mayoral combined authority and devolution deal covering Northumberland and Tyne & Wear would put North East councillors in a much stronger position to deal with these issues, including potentially controlling services, routes and fares through bus franchising.

But they have been dragging their feet over devolution ever the old North East Combined Authority rejected a government offer in 2016 and split in two. They are still doing so, as far as those outside town hall circles can tell, in spite of the fact they could access around £600m from the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement if they could strike a deal among themselves and with the government.

Devolution, which so vitally affects the North East’s interests – not least public transport – passed by almost unnoticed in the council elections this month. As people see their bus services decimated it is time they started asking their politicians, local and national, why they aren’t taking the steps open to them to exploit the opportunities devolution offers.

Improving public services, especially where they are weakest, is one of the government’s levelling up objectives. Dramatically transforming bus services across the North East is the aim of the region’s bus service improvement plan. What passengers are seeing on the roads is not the type of dramatic transformation councillors have in mind and it is not improving public services. It is the opposite of those. It is levelling down.