MPs have clashed over controversial plans to transform bus services in the North East - with claims they have “not been really thought through” and would lead to worse services in Durham and Northumberland.
A row broke out in the House of Commons as North East MPs debated plans to give councils more control over bus services by introducing “quality contracts”.
The North East Combined Authority is to decide whether to introduce the new system at a meeting on October 21, but the change is bitterly opposed by bus operators.
Most MPs who spoke in the debate backed the scheme, but North Durham MP Kevan Jones said he had “serious concerns” about the proposal.
He said profitable services in urban Tyne and Wear currently subsidised the rural bus network, and that subsidy would dry up under the changes.
The combined authority, which represents seven councils in the region, is considering arrangements similar to those already in place in London, in which authorities set out details of the service they want and invite bus companies to bid for the franchise.
If operators believe they cannot make a profit on the service then they are free to submit a negative bid - in other words, to ask for a subsidy.
By contrast, bus timetables are currently determined largely by the bus companies themselves.
Bridget Phillipson, Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland, backed the changes, telling MPs: “Next week, the North East combined authority will decide whether to introduce a quality contract scheme in Tyne and Wear. I am calling on its members to press ahead and make the change that we need.
“The new system would have routes set by the transport authority, with bus operators bidding to run services in an open competition.”
The change would pave the way for a new ticket system allowing passengers to use local rail and bus services with a single ticket, similar to the Oyster card scheme already operating in London, she said.
Attacking local bus firms who oppose the scheme, she said: “Bus companies are refusing to listen to their customers’ concerns, choosing instead to redirect routes that customers rely on, make meaningless changes to route names and numbers and to bus branding, and embark on a systematic campaign of scaremongering.”
But Labour MP Mr Jones said: “There is nothing in what is being proposed that guarantees or helps rural bus services in County Durham or Northumberland.
“The fact is that whether the leaders of Tyne and Wear or others like it or not, the profitable routes coming out of Tyne and Wear subsidise the rural bus networks in my constituency and Hexham. Those will be taken away if the proposal moves forward.”
He added: “I do not wish to sound like the little boy who says the emperor has no clothes, but I have serious concerns about the quality bus contract going before the combined authority on 22 October.”
He said: “The impact on my constituency, in County Durham, and on the areas represented by Members from Northumberland, will be quite pronounced.”
Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, disagreed with Mr Jones, saying: “There is no way in which the unregulated free market can deliver the bus services that the people of the North East need . . . the idea is wrong that certain routes need to be over-profitable so that the private sector can decide to subsidise others.”
Other MPs also backed the combined authority’s plan.
Julie Elliott, Labour MP for Sunderland Central, said: “Quality contracts would replace deregulated markets with a franchising system, providing the transparency that the public deserve and require to trust the bus operators that work for them.”
Northumberland Conservative MP Guy Opperman, MP for Hexham, broadly backed the quality contracts proposal but said it was essential “that the regional areas of County Durham and Northumberland are not affected, so that the citizens of west Northumberland or west County Durham have the rural bus services that they need.”
Nick Brown, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne East, insisted the current system had to change, warning: “I remember when it came in, and since its introduction the private sector has ganged up and monopolised certain routes and parts of the region. That is not private enterprise. A better solution needs to be found.”