North East Devolution and Levelling Up

North East Leaders Go Along With Government Plans To Level Up Bus Services

The North East Joint Transport Committee (JTC) has agreed to go along with the government’s bus service improvement plans, thus making itself eligible for access to a share of £3bn national funding. 

The committee, representing the seven councils in Durham, Northumberland and Tyne & Wear, had already been working towards the sort of partnership with bus operators that ministers expect even before their requirements were spelled out this week. 

Bus Back Better: the National Bus Strategy for England, is intended to level up buses across England towards London standards through the use of statutory Enhanced Partnerships between local transport authorities (LTAs) like the JTC and bus operators. 

Enhanced Partnerships can specify timetables and multi-operator ticketing and allow LTAs to take over the role of registering bus services from the Traffic Commissioners. 

According tothe National Bus Strategy,the main difference compared with franchising is that operators in an Enhanced Partnership have a much greater role, working with LTAs to both develop and deliver improvements for passengers and having a real say in how bus services should be improved. Franchising is still possible, but is automatically available only to mayoral combined authorities, and the government expects most LTAs to opt for partnerships.

LTAs and bus operators will have to fall in with the government’s plans by the end of June if they wish to continue receiving the Covid-19 Bus Services Support Grant or get a share of the £3bn fund. 

The Strategy adds: ‘By the end of October 2021, we expect all LTAs to publish a local Bus Service Improvement Plan, detailing how they propose to use their powers to improve services. We expect actual delivery of Enhanced Partnerships by April 2022. 

‘From that date, the new discretionary forms of bus funding from government will only be available to services operated, or measures taken, under an Enhanced Partnership or where a franchising scheme has been made. In addition, only services operated under these statutory agreements will be eligible for the reformed Bus Service Operators Grant, subject to consultation’. 

A report presented to the JTC today makes clear that the committee has been talking to the government and knew what to expect: ‘Discussions with the government have indicated that it will expect to see: a move towards some form of partnership with greater local accountability for services as a prerequisite for future government funding’. 

JTC members have also been talking to the bus operators and, says the report, all parties have expressed a desire to work together in partnership: ‘This has led to a positive and collaborative approach which has already produced a number of important developments which will benefit both bus passengers and stakeholders’.

Councillor Martin Gannon, JTC chair and leader of Gateshead Council, commented: ‘We are willing to play our part’.