North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Transport: cuts for North East, improvements for Tees Valley

As Tyne and Wear councillors were this week reluctantly approving Metro fares increases of up to 9.5% to stave off a cash crisis, their Tees Valley counterparts were looking forward to investing an extra £310m in public transport improvements over the next five years.

The fare increases of 5.1% overall from April were approved by the North East Joint Transport Committee (JTC) Tyne and Wear sub-committee as one of the measures needed to deal with a £20m budget shortfall blamed by councillors on a drop in fares income due to Covid.

Councillor Martin Gannon, chair of the JTC, appealing for government help and warning of bus service cuts to come, said: ‘Covid-19 has decimated the economics of public transport and we urgently need the government’s help to get through it. Without that help there will be devastating cuts to public transport services…

‘[I]n the continued absence of that commitment we now have no option but to plan for both an increase in the amount local authorities pay for public transport, and cuts to bus funding which will undoubtedly have an impact on services.’

At almost the same time the Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, this week launched a new bus service to ensure that people based at Teesport can get to and from work. He said: ‘This is yet another way we’re helping people who need it get to their jobs in a way that doesn’t break the bank, giving people the local transport network they deserve’.

The cost to the mayor’s budget is a relatively modest £58,000, but is symptomatic of the different financial positions that the Tees Valley and North East find themselves in following the former’s acceptance of a devolution deal in 2016 and the latter’s rejection of a deal.

Tees Valley continues to reap the benefits of its decision, with an award of £310m from the £6.9bn City Regional Sustainable Transport Settlement announced in the Autumn 2021 Budget from which other areas with devolution deals all received a share. But the North East got nothing.

The introduction of a single bus service is certainly not directly comparable to a fares increase on the Metro, but a reading of the two areas’ transport budgets for 2022-23, with dire warnings of cuts in the North East and ambitious plans for improvements in Tees Valley, makes clear what a different situation the two areas are in.

The North East’s current problems are mainly related to revenue while Tees Valley’s improvement plans will largely result from capital investment such as station improvements. The North East, to be clear, is already receiving £210m for new Metro trains.

Meanwhile, both areas are waiting to learn how much they will be granted for their bus service improvement plans. Tees Valley wants £57m over five years while the North East is bidding for a hugely ambitious £804m. It’s not hard to work out who is going to be more disappointed.

Voters in the North East are entitled to ask whether their councillors have not mismanaged their relations with each other and the government ever since they rejected devolution in 2016, split the Tyneside economy north and south along the line of the river and continue more than five years later still to fail in their duty by doing nothing to rectify the situation.