THE head of the North East’s largest bus firm has warned he would rather “take poison” than let councils seize his buses.
Stagecoach chief executive Sir Brian Souter, one of Britain’s richest men, made the heated comments amid an ongoing war between bus firms and transport bosses over who should control routes and fares.
His firm is one of the big three who between them take the lion’s share of £62m worth of public subsidies, prompting calls for the bus networks to be renationalised. Council-backed Nexus is considering taking over bus routes across Tyne and Wear as part of a Quality Contract process bitterly opposed by several firms.
If the move goes ahead it would see local authorities set routes, pick fares and control services across the five council boroughs.
Leaked minutes of meetings between bus operators and Nexus have already revealed furious arguments in which council transport officials were accused of acting like communists.
Now Sir Brian has fanned the flames further by publicly criticising Tyne and Wear transport group Nexus at a national conference.
Sir Brian hit out when speaking at the Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers conference, telling delegates they should “ignore the dinosaurs” pushing for council-controlled bus routes as part of the Quality Contracts.
He said: “Put people who are pushing for Quality Contracts and (union leader) Bob Crow in a Tardis. It is not the way forward.
“We will take poison before we let Nexus take our business away in Newcastle. The region does have passenger decline of about 3%...we aim to grow that business.”
David Wood, chairman of the Tyne and Wear Integrated Transport Authority, the council body behind Nexus, said Sir Brian’s comments were typical of how negotiations have been going.
Nexus has told bus companies to work on a voluntary alternative to the compulsory takeover option which a Quality Contract would bring in, with the two up for decision later this year.
Despite annual handouts worth more than £60m, Nexus say bus use in Tyne and Wear has declined faster since 1997/98 than in any other metropolitan area, making the case for council intervention.
Mr Wood said: “A lot of what has been going on has not been helpful, it feels like a backwards process really. And we know that a lot of public money is going into these bus operators and we need to consider if that is the best way to do this.”
Bernard Garner, director general of Nexus, said: “We have been asked by the Integrated Transport Authority to explore ways we can turn round the fall in bus use Tyne and Wear has seen, a decline which threatens the services local people rely on and the jobs of people who work in the industry.
“We hope all the bus companies in our region will help us work in new ways to protect local services.”
A spokeswoman for Stagecoach said: “We receive no ‘subsidies’ from Nexus/Tyne and Wear ITA.
“Where tendered contracts are awarded, bus companies receive payment for delivering a service, in the same way that a cleaning company may be hired to deliver a contract.”
She added: “Nexus has presented bus operators with an ultimatum and are attempting to plug a black hole in their budget for future years at the expense of local taxpayers and businesses.
“Local people should be under no illusion that the flawed Nexus/ITA plan would lead to higher fares and reduced services for bus passengers already affected by rising costs.
“Quality contracts would be hugely expensive for taxpayers in the North East.”
We will take poison before we let Nexus take our business away in Newcastle