The North East Combined Authority is poised to take over management of Tyne & Wear’s bus services in what could be the most radical extension of council power over buses since they were deregulated in 1985.
Imposition of a quality contract (QC) on local bus operators is due to be endorsed by the combined authority (NECA)’s transport committee at a meeting this week, but then needs approval from its leadership board.
Under the QC, NECA would set bus routes, fares and frequencies and put operation of packages of route out to tender using a similar system to that in London, where buses remained regulated after 1985.
Elsewhere, buses run according to operators’ commercial decisions, though councils may subsidise unviable routes they judge socially necessary.
Councils gained powers to impose the contracts under the previous government, but the complex procedure and fear of legal challenge by operators have deterred other attempts.
A 732-page report to the committee from its regional transport executive body Nexus said the region had the lowest level of car ownership and highest level of bus trips per head outside London, yet bus use was in steep long-term decline.
Nexus said benefits to the public from a QC would include improved bus networks, simpler and cheaper fares, better vehicles, better customer care and more inclusive decision making.
Operators have threatened action under human rights legislation against any QC for deprivation of their businesses.
But the report said adverse effects on operators “will be outweighed by the improvement in wellbeing of persons living or working in the area”. It concluded that this meant the QC met the test of being ‘proportionate’ to a public policy objective under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Major local operators jointly proposed an alternative to a QC of a voluntary partnership offering reduced fares, 50 additional vehicles and some reductions in public spending on subsidies.
But the report said this carried “a low level of certainty that the benefits would be realised in practice”, and would not avert “severe cuts to publicly-funded bus services”.
A QC would avoid this uncertainty as there would be enforceable contracts to run services between Nexus and operators, it said.
Under the QC, NECA would become responsible for all bus revenues and costs, which the report admitted would “introduce significant risks” – although it was confident these could be managed.
A simplified five-zone ticket system would be created to which changes would need NECA’s consent, as would any network changes.
The QC would cover the council areas of Newcastle City Council and Gateshead, North Tyneside, South Tyneside and Sunderland MBCs, with a protocol with Durham and Northumberland CCs covering routes that crossed their boundaries.