One of the new powers that the elected mayor will get in the new mayoral authority, when it is established next year is control over local public transport. This means the buses, Metro and local rail services. It does not mean owning them – unless the new authority finds enough cash to buy out the existing operators, but deciding which routes should be run and what fares should be charged. This is roughly the situation now in London. Contractors would then be offered to run the routes on these terms.
This is different from the situation we have now. Although there is liaison with the transport operators, the only way the companies will run unprofitable routes is if the existing local authorities, working through the Joint Transport Committee, pay them to do it. The operators like running the expresses, because by and large they make money, but are often reluctant to operate buses to more remote places.
Is transport an issue?
Is transport going to be a big issue for the new mayoral authority? Some may argue that the number of families without a car is declining, and bus travel is seen as “for losers”. Young people in particular aspire to have a car, mainly because it gives them freedom to go where they want to. It is argued by some that spending large amounts of money on public transport is a waste of money, and the limited amount of money the mayor will have could be better spent on other things.
I do not think this is the case, and here is why.
Firstly, we all hope the new authority will aspire to develop a greener economy. Expanding car use, even with electric cars will cause more pollution. At the moment one of the biggest causes of pollution in the North East is the congestion caused by traffic crossing the Tyne. The introduction of a “drive through” ticketing system for the Tyne Tunnel, so cars no longer have to stop to buy tickets with their engines idling, has substantially reduced pollution. There is a need to shift passengers from cars to public transport in other areas, such as the Tyne Bridge to reduce it further.
Secondly we must think what the economy of the new authority will look like. As Mike Clark from Consett has pointed out in last Tuesday’s Journal, much of it may take place in smaller towns. The new authority is not a city surrounded by a rural hinterland. Admittedly there are remote rural areas in West Durham and North Northumberland, and long may they stay so, but most of the region, outside the major urban centres is a network of towns. Sedgefield has an advanced research and development site at Net Park. Newton Aycliffe has a major industrial park with hi-tech companies. South East Northumberland is now a cluster for green industries, with towns like Blyth and Ashington, once thought of as in decline, now developing modern industries. As Mike Clark pointed out new industries are developing at Consett too. Barnard Castle, at the far end of the new authority has a modern pharmaceutical factory, and the list goes on.
A different way of thinking
If the new mayoral authority is to be a success, we must stop thinking of it as a big conurbation with remote rural hinterlands. People must stop thinking that all the money will go to Tyneside and the rest of us will be left out. Much of the innovation and growth will take place in smaller centres outside the main Tyneside conurbation.
That is why we need a mayor who will think about the whole region, not just the areas around the Tyne. But more important he or she will have to improve connectivity. Job seekers must be able to travel to where the work is easily and quickly.
What will improved connectivity look like? Politicians love building new railway lines and opening stations. But there are problems with building new lines. The obvious one is you have to have the land. Many old rail lines have been sold off, turned into walkways or built on. One which would be easy to reopen is the Leamside Line, because Network Rail still owns the land. It would be a great benefit to the region. Otherwise the answer is likely to be more buses which is the public transport most people use.
Bus travel is subsidised, but not so much as railways. Rail operators receive their subsidy whether the trains run or not. Buses receive a grant but rely on fare income and compensation for concessionary travel and the £2 max scheme. They received extra during the pandemic. All this will end in April so bus operators will face difficult times.
Bus ridership is only 80% of what it was before the pandemic mainly due to more people working at home. Plans to expand bus use as I am suggesting will be difficult.
If devolution is to work, and we are to achieve green objectives as well, then the government needs to ensure that bus services are reliable and frequent. This will mean more financial help, but a better service will ultimately lead to more users. Initially more money must be found. Looking at the amount paid to the private rail operators and the lack of an effective windfall tax on the huge profits of the oil companies would be a good place to start.