Ambitious £800m plan to bolster bus travel already in doubt

The chances of the North East delivering £800m worth of upgrades to the region’s bus network – including services in Northumberland – have been rated “infinitesimally small”, just two weeks after the ambitious plan was launched.

By Daniel Holland
Thursday, 4th November 2021, 4:44 pm
There are fears a £800m bus travel plan for the region is already dead in the water.
There are fears a £800m bus travel plan for the region is already dead in the water.

A council leader has accused the government of being “disingenuous” about how much money is on offer for regions outside London to upgrade public transport networks towards the capital’s standards, seeming to leave the North East massively unlikely to get the bulk of the funding it is asking for.

The region’s leaders backed an £804m bid last month that, if approved by ministers, would deliver a colossal series of improvements – including cheaper fares, more low-emission buses, and single-ticket travel over bus, Metro, rail, and ferry throughout Tyne and Wear, Northumberland, and County Durham.

The plan was put together under a new partnership between local councils and the region’s private bus operators, which was required in order to win a share of a £3bn levelling up pledge from the government to improve services.

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But after just £1.2bn was committed in last week’s Budget to transform regional bus services, local politicians fear their proposals may have already hit a brick wall.

It comes after further anger that the North East was excluded from billions of pounds worth of transport funding deals for regions with metro mayors last week too.

Gateshead Council leader Martin Gannon told the North East Combined Authority that he believed the true amount of bus improvement funding available to regions outside London was just £1.2bn rather than £3bn because “a lot of what is within that has already been previously allocated”.

The Department for Transport confirmed that £1.2bn was the total available for ‘bus transformation deals’ – but said that the £3bn total was made up further £525m was going towards delivering 2,500 zero-emission buses, more than £500m in ‘ City Region Sustainable Transport Settlements’, and more in Covid-19 recovery money.

Sunderland Council leader Graeme Miller called the government “disingenuous” and warned that the chances of the North East getting the money it wants were now far slimmer than first thought, when even then it was considered unlikely.

He said: “It is clearly very worrying that we have put forward a regional proposal which transforms people’s lives if the government supports us and, dare I say, ‘levels up’ through access to homes, schools, and businesses, yet then we find through looking into the finances of what the Budget has announced that the money is not £3bn but is £1.2bn.

“I hope that is not the case, but I have no doubt you [Coun Gannon] are correct.

“It means we are asking for two thirds of their money. The chances of getting £804m were not very likely in the first place, if you get most of what you ask for you are doing well.

“But the chances of getting two thirds of the money are infinitesimally small.”

Coun Miller, who chairs NECA, added: “The proof is in the pudding and we are eating the pudding – it’s pretty dry, there are no sultanas in it.”