Commons inquiry backs North East councils in row with bus operators

New bus franchises bitterly opposed by transport companies have been backed by the Commons Transport Committee

The Haymarket Bus Station in Newcastle

An influential Commons inquiry has backed controversial proposals to give councils control of bus services in the North East.

The Commons Transport Committee said it welcomed plans to introduce “quality contracts” across the region, allowing local authorities to decide where services should run and how often.

This could give people in isolated communities access to public transport - improving their job prospects and ability to obtain training and healthcare, the MPs said.

The North East Combined Authority is to make a decision on whether to press ahead with quality contracts, which are already in use in London, later this year.

But the potential change is bitterly opposed by bus companies. Earlier this week Kevin Carr, managing director of Go North East, told The Journal that the plans were “unworkable, unaffordable and totally impractical”.

Fellow bus operator Stagecoach also opposes the idea.

In an interview with The Journal last year, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin attacked North East councils over the plans, urging them to “work with the bus operators” instead of fighting them.

But the Transport Committee took a very different view in its report on passenger transport in isolated communities, which followed a seven-month inquiry.

A majority of the committee’s members are MPs from the governing Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. The chair is Labour MP Louise Ellman.

Quality contracts involve local authorities setting out details of the service they want bus operators to offer, and then inviting firms to bid for the right to run the franchise.

If bus companies believe they cannot make a profit on the service then they are free to submit a negative bid - to ask for a subsidy. The authorities would then award the contract to the firm which either offered the most payment or asked for the lowest subsidy.

By contrast, bus timetables are currently determined by the bus companies themselves.

The MPs said: “A Quality Contract would replace deregulated bus markets with a franchising system similar to that in London, where the local transport authority would specify what the bus network will provide and the private sector would compete for the right to provide it. Quality Contracts could be used to ensure the provision of bus services to isolated communities.”

Highlighting plans for quality contracts drawn up by Nexus, the passenger transport executive in Tyne and Wear which is overseen by the combined authority, the MPs said: “Nexus in Tyne and Wear were the first to launch a formal public consultation, which closed on 4 June 2014.

“We welcome the initiative shown by Nexus in introducing its draft Quality Contract in Tyne and Wear. This will be an important test case in determining whether Quality Contracts are a viable means by which to deliver bus services.”

The inquiry considered evidence from a range of local authorities including Northumberland County Council, which warned that bus companies currently refused to offer services which hit their profits.

In a written submission to the inquiry, the council said: “There is more than one village in Northumberland (as elsewhere) that stands close to a major road with plentiful bus services, but that is cut off because diversion off that main road is judged by the bus operator concerned not to be worthwhile.”

Urban housing estates could also be neglected, the council said.

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