North East bus routes facing uncertain future as latest cash injection branded a "sticking plaster" by leaders
A £130 million lifeline to stave off cuts to bus services is just “another short-term sticking plaster”, according to North East leaders.
The government announced a significant U-turn earlier this month, as ministers committed to new funding for struggling bus operators across England from October.
The move followed a plea by northern mayors to extend funding, which has helped keep essential public transport services running since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused passenger numbers to drop substantially, and warned that failure to prop up operators would lead to even more severe cuts across the region.
The 11th hour decision has been hailed as a “big win”, but North East transport chiefs have called for Westminster to go further, claiming an extra six months’ worth of support would not be enough to solve the problem.
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Martin Gannon, chairman of the North East Joint Transport Committee and leader of Gateshead Council, said: “While I’m pleased to see additional funding announced for bus services, unfortunately this is another short-term sticking plaster and there is still an urgent need for more long-term funding to support public transport networks across the country.
"Operators have faced major challenges in recent years and there is still much to do to recover from the devastating impact of the pandemic, alongside difficult conditions with rising fuel costs and driver shortages.
“Our bus network is an important asset and something local people rely on.
"I want to see the Government commit to longer-term investment for bus services in the North East, so that services are there for communities when they need them, driving green journeys and reducing carbon emissions.”
Patronage levels on North East buses are still roughly a quarter below pre-pandemic levels, – although this figure appears to have stabilised over recent months.
Go North East imposed reduced timetables across several parts of the region in July, following earlier cutbacks in Newcastle and North Tyneside in March, and there have been concerns that Arriva and Stagecoach will soon slash more of their routes too.
Tyne and Wear Metro operator Nexus estimates that roughly 100 fewer buses per day are now running in the area, compared to six months ago.
North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll, who wrote to the government alongside other mayors to call for the Bus Recovery Grant to be extended, said it was “good to see the government listening this time”.
He added: “Buses are essential to many people’s lives.
"It’s madness to cut bus services when people are already suffering hardship during a cost of living crisis.”
The government has insisted it is “using every tool at its disposal to help people” through the cost of living crisis and had delivered almost £2 billion to more than 160 bus operator since the start of the pandemic.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “This funding will ensure millions across the country can continue to use vital bus services, and brings the total we’ve provided to the sector throughout the pandemic to almost £2 billion.
“At a time when people are worried about rising costs, it’s more important than ever we save these bus routes for the millions who rely on them for work, school and shopping.”