The prospect of a bitter legal battle between one of the UK’s biggest bus firms and all seven North East councils is almost a certainty as takeover plans push ahead.
Wearside MP Bridget Phillipson has called on the Transport Secretary to warn off Stagecoach as it threatens legal action to stop councils taking over bus routes.
A new super council set to be formed in the North East will be tasked with seeing through a new era of London-style bus powers, letting councillors set all routes, fares and timetables.
The move is fiercely opposed by the bus firms which would be expected to pitch for individual contracts, having little say over the profits they can make,
Yesterday, Labour MP Mrs Phillipson told the Transport Secretary the increasingly likely courtroom showdown will be paid for out of the profits Stagecoach made from running on heavily subsidised routes.
She said: “When the Secretary of State next meets transport group representatives, they will no doubt tell him that bus fares are rising year on year and that routes are being cut.
“Should not operators such as Stagecoach, which make a huge profit off the back of the taxpayer subsidy, start behaving more responsibly, rather than threatening legal action at the prospect of a quality contract in Tyne and Wear?”
Stagecoach, along with other North East bus operators, has backed a partnership alternative in which they promise new buses and fares in exchange for no more council interference.
Their hopes of keeping control look set to be scuppered next week when council transport bosses meeting for the last time before a new Combined Authority is formed will be asked to back a consultation on the takeover plans.
Last night a Stagecoach spokesman said: “The Transport Secretary rightly stresses the need for bus operators and local transport authorities to work together to deliver the best possible services for local people. That is why Stagecoach and other operators have been fully focused on developing a wide-ranging partnership proposal and having constructive and detailed discussions with Nexus about the plans.
“Ms Phillipson is out of touch. Stagecoach offers the lowest fares of any major bus operator and Tyne and Wear has one of the biggest levels of bus use in the country.
“The overwhelming majority of bus services in the region are provided commercially without the need for public support. Local taxpayers in the North East and elsewhere are benefiting from our success in attracting more people to bus travel.
“We reinvest our profits in improving our services and just this month announced a record £100m order for new state-of-the-art greener vehicles for the UK, part of which will directly benefit bus passengers in Tyne and Wear.”
Also backing the quality contract process, in which councils take charge, was Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah.
She said: “Quality contracts are one reason why London has bucked the national trend of rising fares and falling passenger numbers. Will the Secretary of State join me, Tyne and Wear public transport users group and his friend, the Mayor of London, in supporting quality contracts for quality bus services?”
But Transport Minister Stephen Hammond played down support for the process.
He said: “The Government are making a huge commitment through grants to bus operators and have reformed the bus service operators’ grant so that local authorities are now in charge of it. We believe that partnership is the best way forward and I am convinced that it still is.”