North East Devolution and Levelling Up

Transport: what a difference a month makes

‘The radical £804m bid that could revolutionise North East buses with cheaper and faster journeys: The plans include upgraded stations, more zero-emission buses, and the London-style ability to travel across multiple forms of public transport using a contactless bank card’ (ChronicleLive, 22 October 2021).

‘Huge cuts to North East’s public transport would be catastrophic and risk “economic collapse”: Metro operator Nexus faces a £20.8m black hole that could mean major cuts to bus services in Tyne and Wear’ (ChronicleLive, 17 November 2021).

These two headlines from Newcastle’s evening newspaper, less than a month apart, are a clear indication of how quickly hopes for public services can go into reverse for a region so dependent on central government for funding.

It is a lesson that is particularly relevant on a morning when the government is expected to scrap plans for the eastern leg of High Speed Rail 2 between Birmingham and Leeds (HS2b), providing a link to the East Coast Main Line and northwards to Newcastle, and to downgrade plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) between Manchester and Leeds.

Northern political and business leaders have long campaigned for HS2b and NPR, but this website has been warning for months that the plans were under threat.

With reference to the hoped-for £804m bus revolution and the threatened ‘catastrophic’ cuts referred to above, it must be pointed in fairness to the local politicians who dangled the prospective revolutionary bus transformation in front of the North East public a month ago and are now warning of catastrophic cuts, that that two reports are not exactly comparing like with like.

The £804m revolution refers to a five-year bus service improvement plan drawn up by the North East Joint Transport Committee (JTC) representing the seven councils in Northumberland, County Durham and Tyne & Wear, which this website warned its readers on October 24 not to get too excited about. The government’s response to the JTC’s funding bid is still awaited.

The potentially catastrophic cuts referred to by the JTC chair, Councillor Martin Gannon, talking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service and carried in ChronicleLive, refer to the North East’s transport revenue budget covering running costs for 2022-23, as buses and the Metro struggle to overcome the drop in passenger numbers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Each report is valid in its own right. Politicians are correct both to make ambitious plans for the future and to prepare realistically for the worst. But even with these caveats in mind, the dramatic change of tone is a reminder to the public always to take politicians’ aspirations with a pinch of salt or, to mix metaphors, not to count chickens before they are hatched.