Bitterly-opposed plans to give councils control of bus services in the North East will be backed by Labour, it has emerged.
Shadow Transport Minister Mary Creagh paid tribute to proposals by the North East Combined Authority to introduce ‘quality contracts’ for bus operators in the region.
The move would herald a new era of London-style bus powers, with councils having final say over where services should run and how often.
The Labour politician repeated the words “big change” during a speech to delegates at the Labour party conference.
She said infrastructure, fares and road safety would be priorities and criticised moves to return the East Coast Main Line franchise to the private sector.
She said: “Buses are the lifelines of our cities, towns and villages.
“Two thirds of all journeys on public transport are on buses, yet they have become a Cinderella service. Bus services cut.
“Fares up by an inflation-busting 25% since 2010.
“Passenger numbers down outside London. People unable to get to work. The young, the poor, the disabled and the elderly - cut off from normal life. That must change.
“So Labour will support any city that wants London-style buses and smart, integrated tickets to have them.
“I want to pay tribute to the combined authorities in the North East and West Yorkshire, who have spent the past four years trying to achieve better buses through a Quality Contract.
“I wish them luck. And in government they will have my full support.”
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 bid and request a subsidy.
The authorities would then award the contract to the firm which offered the best value for money.
As it stands, bus timetables are decided by bus companies.
Bus companies, including Go North East and Stagecoach, oppose plans to roll out a quality contracts scheme in the region.
Mary Creagh’s words come as Labour is poised to clinch an overall majority at the next General Election in May and Nexus, the Tyne and Wear Passenger Transport Executive, draws up final plans on quality contracts.
A Nexus spokesman said: “We are in the process of finalising Bus Strategy proposals Tyne and Wear which include the options of a Quality Contracts scheme and a Voluntary Bus Partnership scheme.
“The report will go before the North East Combined Authority next month where a decision will be taken.”
Ms Creagh also used her speech to highlight a campaign to keep the East Coast Mainline franchise in public hands.
Directly Operated Railways is expected to return a huge profit on the rail operator and customer satisfaction levels are high, but the line is expected to be re-privatised in 2015 under plans by the Coalition Government.
She told conference delegates: “Today we have Directly Operated Railways running the East Coast.
“This not-for-profit company will have returned over one billion pounds to the public purse by next March.
“Why is our British Directly Operated Railways the only rail company in the world banned from bidding to run East Coast services?
“That’s no way to run a railway.”