North East bus companies could be forced into changes in return for handouts from authorities

Regional leaders could be given a bigger say over bus routes and ticket prices in return for the cash needed to prop up the sector.

Wednesday, 15th July 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 15th July 2020, 7:54 am
A bus shelter c/o Google Streetview

A slump in passenger numbers has seen firms forced to rely on handouts from councils and government ministers to keep services running since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

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And while transport chiefs have previously raised the prospect of future cash coming with strings attached, they have now suggested this could extend even further into day-to-day operations.

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Tobyn Hughes, managing director of Transport North East, said conditions could be attached to ‘local payments’ in the future.

He added: “[Council leaders] have expressed a desire [these payments] be used as a platform for better engagement with local bus companies.

“They have also expressed a concern that it is not readily apparent how the authorities can be assured value for money is being achieved.

“And they have also discussed at length the need for central government to take note of the need for continued bus payments for as long as income is affected by coronavirus.”

Hughes, who is also managing director of Metro operator Nexus, was speaking at a meeting of the North East Joint Transport Committee, which was held by videolink and broadcast via YouTube.

North East council bosses have been paying out up to £1.5million every week to bus companies to cover lost income from travellers advised to stay home during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Before the crisis almost two thirds of funding for bus services came from passenger fares, but this has now slumped to just five per cent, with the rest provided by the Government and local authorities.

Hughes suggested future agreements could see passenger data and account books handed over to councils in exchange for future payments.

And an ‘engagement forum’ could also be created to give elected leaders a say over fare levels and routes.

Peter Jackson, leader of Northumberland County Council, told the panel: “The crisis has made us realise we have a duty to support essential public services, like bus transport.

“But it has also highlighted that we are majorly funding bus transport.”

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