North East travel chiefs hoping Manchester ruling will pave the way for overhaul of buses, but operators remain skeptical
The North East wants to follow Greater Manchester’s lead in taking control of its bus services away from private companies and back into public hands.
Northern mayor Andy Burnham’s ambitions for a London-style in which local authorities determine fares, timetables and routes, took a major step forward with a major victory in the courts this month.
Bus firms Stagecoach and Rotala had claimed the scheme was “irrational”, but it has now been deemed lawful, following a judicial review.
The ruling has been hailed as a green light for the rest of northern England to follow suit, creating transport networks that put “people ahead of profit”.
The decision follows fears North East operators could be forced to slash their mileage by almost a fifth over the coming months to cope with funding cuts.
But unlike Greater Manchester, North East leaders do not currently have the needed to copy the franchise model – although it is hoped such powers could one day form the basis of a new devolution deal for the region.
Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon confirmed that a return to total public control over buses “remains the ambition” of local transport chiefs and that they would be “closely studying” Greater Manchester’s progress.
Coun Gannon, who chairs the North East Joint Transport Committee, said: “This is very similar to the integrated public transport system that Tyne and Wear enjoyed in the 80s and its reintroduction remains the ambition.
“My congratulations to Greater Manchester on this important step. The North East will be closely studying Greater Manchester’s implementation of their franchising scheme.”
Plans for a ‘Quality Contract Scheme’, in which Metro operator Nexus would have run buses across Tyne and Wear failed in 2015 after bosses failed to prove it would increase value for money or passenger numbers.
North East councils are currently working on an ‘enhanced partnership’ with the region’s bus operators.
They hope it will give them a greater say over bus routes and service changes, but leave operators to set ticket prices.
Martijn Gilbert, managing director of Go North East, claimed a franchise system would be a “huge waste of public money”.
He added: “I don’t want this to become a distraction from the very important job of recovering passenger numbers and dealing with the serious challenges of congestion and air quality.
“People will cite a London model, but I would say look at the cost to the taxpayer – if the money is there then great, but it comes at a huge cost.”
The Confederation of Passenger Transport tweeted that Greater Manchester “will be spending well over £130m on set up costs and the franchise system will take a few years to set up” and predicted an “enhanced partnership” would bring most of the same benefits faster and cheaper.
Mr Burnham said on Wednesday that the ruling on his proposals was “truly fantastic news for everyone outside London who wishes to see a return to a bus service that puts people ahead of profit”.