Why North East bus users cannot expect a fares cap

It has taken the best part of a year for the implications of the failure of North East politicians to deliver the best possible public transport package to come home to the woman on the Newcastle omnibus, and that this failure will eventually be helping to empty her purse.

ChronicleLive reports today that the Tyne and Wear Public Transport Users Group (PTUG) is demanding a cap on bus fares, like the £2 maximum being planned in Greater Manchester by Mayor Andy Burnham.

‘When will they be introducing a similar fare cap for our bus passengers? And if not, why not?’ a PTUG spokeswoman demanded to know, when speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service for ChronicleLive.

She added: “We urged our local politicians to follow London and Manchester’s example by going for franchised bus services in the North East, which would have given democratic oversight of bus routes and fares. Since they instead opted for an enhanced [bus]  partnership, we’d like to challenge them to tell us how they’re going to provide similar protection to bus passengers in our region’.

As the TPUG evidently understands the difference between franchised bus services and an enhanced bus partnership, as planned in Greater Manchester and the North East respectively, it presumably knows the answer to its own question: local politicians in the North East can’t introduce franchising and a fare cap because they have rejected a mayoral combined authority (MCA) covering the whole region. Instead they have a half-MCA which does not extend south of the Tyne.

The North East’s local transport authority (LTA) is therefore a hybrid – the Joint Transport Committee – made up of the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA), which is an MCA, and the North East Combined Authority (NECA) south of the river, which is not. This is not good enough for the government, which is not prepared to hand out powers and funding without a mayor to be held accountable.

The TPUG’s call for a fares cap comes the day after cuts were imposed on more than 30 bus routes in Newcastle and North Tyneside because of financial problems, in spite of a £4.5m partial rescue package by Nexus, the passenger transport executive.

It was back in June 2021 that this website warned that the North East was having to settle for a second-best plan to improve bus services as a result of not having a devolution deal and a mayoral combined authority covering its whole area, as Greater Manchester does, and as long ago as last March that we warned of other possible drawbacks for transport planning of not having a deal.

Yet in spite of this, the North East Transport Plan, for which councillors want £6.8bn from the government by 2035, claims: ‘The North East region has a well developed governance structure and associated assurance process in place to agree and deliver transport policies, strategies and investment opportunities.’ (p. 61)

It has no such thing, and the JTC’s inability to introduce a fare cap as the PTUG wants is another example of that, following its failure to secure around £600m from the City Region Sustainable Transport Settlement, which could have been used, for example, to fund the Leamside rail line.   

While the PTUG’s question is a good one for now, it would be more relevant in the long term to ask North East politicians: ‘When will they be introducing a regional devolution deal? And if not, why not?’

That would be a good question for Councillor Martin Gannon, leader of Gateshead Council, who is both chair of the Joint Transport Committee which is struggling with the effects of not having a devolution deal, and the man who got the North East into this mess in the first place by leading the fight against a deal in 2016, and split the region as a result.

None of the above is to suggest that the North East does not need government support for its buses. It does, but there is a responsibility on the region too to get its governance sorted out. Rumours and hints of talks about a new devolution deal have been widespread for months, but in time-honoured North East fashion the public is being told little or nothing. Devolution should be an issue in the council elections only a few weeks away, but the chances of that are not good.    

Comments

Peter Nardone, Middlesbrough: Never heard such a load of garbage concerning levelling up in Northeast england especially being treated as equal.i live in Middlesbrough worked from the age of 16 retired at 58 paid my taxes etc yet in London,Scotland &Northern Ireland you get your bus pass at 60 but I have to wait until 66 why that is discrimination against me and people over 60 who have not reached pension age so why are these clowns say they are levelling up northeast england and its not down to the local authority in your area as to when you get you bus pass if its good enough for London,Scotland and Northern Ireland then I should be afforded the same privilege of my bus pass at 60 (posted 31/03/2022).