And with handouts likely to be needed even after covid restrictions have been lifted, transport chiefs have raised the prospect of bartering their way to a greater say over services.
“For the vast majority of the North East, public transport means buses,” said Martin Gannon, leader of Gateshead Council and transport lead for the North East Combined Authority (NECA).
“They’re run by private operators, but they’re public transport and at the moment those private companies are effectively publicly funded.
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“We will support the bus companies, but the point we’ve also been making is the current model, based around unregulated private companies, doesn’t work – it is now 100% publicly funded.
“If it is 100% publicly funded there should be greater public control over financing, routes and fares.”
Cllr Gannon was speaking at this a meeting of NECA’s Leadership Board on February 2, which was held by videolink and broadcast via YouTube.
As well as government cash in the form of the COVID-19 Bus Service Support Grant (CBSSG), North East councils have also kept up payments for subsidised routes and concessionary fares, despite the lack of travellers.
In 2020, transport bosses raised the possibility of adding conditions to ‘local payments’ in the future.
Bus operators have received about £70million from the North East’s local authorities since the start of the pandemic, equivalent to about 55% of their funding, with much of the remainder coming from the Department for Transport.
The government is currently expected to phase out the CBSSG over the course of eight weeks, once it begins lifting social distancing restrictions.
But concerns over finance remain due to questions over how long it will take passengers to return in significant numbers.
Cllr Gannon added: “The situation with bus services continues to be precarious.
“It’s blatantly obvious, I think, that revenues and bus usage will not return to pre-covid levels for some time and there will be a need for continued government support for some time.”