On the buses: North East has to settle for second best

The North East is having to settle for a second-best plan to improve bus services as a result of not having devolution and a mayoral combined authority covering its whole area. It will not be able to introduce the type of integrated services operating in London and planned by Mayor Andy Burnham for Greater Manchester.

The North East Joint transport committee (JTC) covering Northumberland, County Durham and the five council areas in Tyne and Wear has agreed to join a so-called Enhanced Partnership (EP) with local bus companies under which it will negotiate improvements to services. But it cannot access the greater powers available under London-style bus franchising because there is no mayoral combined authority in the four councils south of the Tyne.

Bus improvements are the latest example of levelling-up measures where the North East finds itself at a disadvantage as a result of rejecting a devolution deal in 2016. The south of Tyne councils which voted against the deal and constitute what is left of the North East Combined Authority (NECA), are not just suffering the consequences themselves but are holding back the three councils that voted for a deal, broke away, formed their own North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) and did their own deal.

The government has set aside £3bn to implement a National Bus Strategy (NBS) aimed at levelling up bus services throughout the country towards the standard in London, making buses more frequent, more reliable, easier to understand and use, better coordinated and cheaper. Bus Service Improvement Plans have to be in place by the end of October and implemented by April 2022.

Local transport authorities (LTAs) like the North East JTC that do not fall in line with the government’s plans will not only forfeit any share of the £3bn earmarked to implement the NBS but also stand to lose existing bus subsidies, including Covid-19 support. A report from Transport North East (TNE) to the JTC warns that non-compliance with the government’s agenda would inevitably lead to large-scale cuts to the bus network, both immediately without Covid-19 funding and longer term without access to other support.

An Enhanced Partnership (EP) like that planned for the North East will enable improvements to be made but will be what the TNE report says will be ‘essentially a negotiated document between the LTA and local bus operators’. It states:

‘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.’

If bus franchising had been available to the North East, the JTC would have been able to decide the details of the services to be provided; where they run, when they run, the standards of the services and the fares charged. But LTAs like the JTC which are not mayoral combined authorities need government consent to operate franchising – a process likely to take several years.

North East councillors have been trying to introduce bus franchising in the region for almost a decade. Nexus, the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive, started work on plans for franchising in 2012, but they were rejected by an independent board 2015.

It is an irony that the politician entrusted by his colleagues with the task of dealing with this difficult situation as chair of the North East JTC is the same Councillor Martin Gannon who was probably more responsible than any other for bringing it about. As leader of Gateshead Council it was he who led opposition to the devolution deal in 2016, first in Gateshead and then within NECA. Had devolution been done, councillors would probably now be talking about their long-preferred option of franchising instead of the second-best of an EP in which they have to negotiate with the bus companies.