LEADERS of the seven North East councils have voted in favour of a scheme which will transform the way bus services are run on Wearside.
The decision of the North East Combined Authority (NECA) was a unanimous vote by Sunderland City Council Leader Paul Watson and colleagues from South Tyneside, County Durham, Gateshead, North Tyneside, Newcastle and Northumberland, who agreed to submit proposals for the introduction of a Quality Contract Scheme (QCS) for consideration by the national QCS Board.
The North East is the first part of the country to reach this stage under legislation introduced in 2000, in a move which could signal the biggest changes to the way buses operate across the region since de-regulation in the 1980s.
The scheme by Metro-operator Nexus, would see bus companies bidding for contracts to provide routes for the NECA. There will also be more public involvement in the way services are run and can be improved.
Bus operators had proposed an alternative Voluntary Partnership Agreement, which would see bus companies working with the Combined Authority under a formal voluntary agreement.
Nick Forbes, regional transport lead for the NECA said: “The proposal presents the best option for increasing passenger numbers, protecting important but less profitable bus routes, preserving concessionary fares and providing a clear and easier to use bus network for passengers.
“We believe it is a very sound proposal and we await the decision of the Quality Contract Board with great interest.
“We realise that the bus companies will find this decision disappointing, but leaders took their decision balancing the wider public interest and concluded that the voluntary arrangements proposed by the bus companies could simply not deliver our ambitions for better bus services.
“We were also clear that, without action, bus use would continue to decline, and the pressures on public funding would simply become unsustainable.”
Go North East managing director Kevin Carr said: “I am bitterly disappointed with the decision, but we are not surprised. We still believe that the quality contracts scheme is unaffordable, it is not in the best interest of passengers in the North East. We still believe that a partnership is the way forward and we will continue to promote it and will await the findings of the Quality Contracts Board.”
Coun Watson said: “Clearly it moves the issue forward. We’ve always had concerns about the way it works and the lack of consultation. The question has always been whether buses should be a public service or a business.
“We now have to wait for the decision of the Quality Contracts Board, which is the next part of the process.”
Houghton and Sunderland South MP Bridget Phillipson said: “I am delighted the North East Combined Authority has voted to introduce the country’s first regulated transport system outside of London since the Thatcher government deregulated bus services in 1986.
“The Quality Contract Scheme Board will now be asked to assess the scheme before it can be brought into force. The bus operators should now respect this democratic decision.
“The decision will then be referred back to the North East Combined Authority for a final decision. If agreed the aim would be to introduce the Quality Contract Scheme by April 2017.”
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