Bus services in Tyne and Wear are a step closer to being taken back under council control.
The North East Combined Authority (NECA) agreed at a meeting yesterday to seek powers to regulate bus fares and services across the network in the Tyne and Wear area from April 2017.
It has written to the Department for Transport and its request will be referred to a quality contracts board – an independent panel set up by the department and chaired by a traffic commissioner. The panel will assess whether the NECA’s proposal for a quality contract scheme passes five public interest tests.
Nick Forbes (Lab), transport lead for the NECA and leader of Newcastle City Council, told LGC “free market bus services” were “clearly failing”, with reduced passenger numbers and rising bus fares.
“We want to ensure bus services, which are essential to the local economy and people enjoying a good quality of life, don’t simply wither and die on the vine,” he said.
The Unite union has voiced support for the NECA’s proposal. National officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton said: “This could herald a revolution in the way bus services are managed and developed across the country for the benefit of passengers. For the first time [since 1986], a council regulated network of buses could be established outside London.”
Cllr Forbes said the NECA had agreed to seek “in effect” the same transport powers as London. It wants to introduce an integrated travel system that would allow passengers to use the same tickets on different modes of transport, as well as fare capping.
“Bus services will still be run by operators but instead of the free-for-all between them they will have to work within a regulated system where there will be proper democratic accountability of the network routes and fares,” he said.
While this proposal just relates to bus services in Tyne and Wear, the NECA covers an area which also includes County Durham and Northumberland.
Cllr Forbes said: “We have got ambitions that, over time, we would seek to develop transport across the whole NECA area but that is probably several years away.”
Cllr Forbes said that, should the NECA gain the powers it is seeking, councils would not be able to use any profits made to prop up other services.
“We are not proposing, as local authorities, to reduce the level of financial support put into to bus services,” he said. “The whole operation will be ringfenced.
“There’s no way councils would see this as an income generating measure.”