The Tyne and Wear Integrated Transport Authority has voted to begin a process that could lead to major changes in how local bus services used by 140 million passengers a year are planned and delivered.

The Authority has begun work to develop a Quality Contract Scheme (QCS), which would represent the biggest change to the local bus market for 25 years.

A scheme – which would be the first in the country if finally approved – would see the ITA (through Nexus) take responsibility for all local bus services, around 340 different routes in Tyne and Wear.

It would mean bus services would operate with a single brand and fare structure, with prices set by the ITA and income re-invested to support the whole network.

At the same time the ITA has approved a parallel process to develop Voluntary Partnership Agreements with local bus operators, which at present run 90% of bus services and set their own fares, routes and timetables.

The programmes to improve delivery of this essential public service are supported by the five local authorities in Tyne and Wear.

Cllr David Wood, Chairman of the ITA, said: “If we are going to save essential bus services from years of cuts, rising costs and falling passenger numbers we need to think in a totally new way about how they are delivered.

“Commercial bus companies rely heavily on taxpayer income, but there is no single body planning public transport to meet local needs and making sure it is delivered cost-effectively.

“The result is a complicated, confusing and wasteful mess with dozens of brands, more than 100 ticket choices, and some of our communities poorly served. The time is right to explore change, and the ITA has begun that process.”

The ITA says that in a Quality Contract Scheme bus users would benefit from a high-frequency core of services tied-in with Metro, simplified fares, accessible quality buses, full consultation on changes to routes and a customer charter to guarantee standards of service.

A single body would determine where and when buses ran and how much they cost, with private companies providing routes under contract, similar to the way Tyne and Wear Metro operations are run now.

Local buses could not operate within Tyne and Wear except within the contract scheme, ending the deregulated market that has existed since 1986.

A Voluntary Partnership Agreement would, as an alternative, see Nexus and bus companies in Tyne and Wear agree key commitments on where and how frequently routes operates, the range within which fares change and the stability of the current network of bus services in the years ahead.

The ITA heard at its meeting last week that the taxpayer already provides almost half the income of private bus companies in Tyne and Wear – around £62m a year – but public bodies have no influence on the service they deliver.

Tyne and Wear is among a small number of areas in the country considering the introduction of a Quality Contract Scheme, and could be the first to achieve it.  But it could be up to three years before a QCS comes into being, following local consultation and the support of a Government-appointed approval board.

A Voluntary Partnership Agreement may take less time to agree, if the ITA can achieve firm commitments from bus companies in line with what is believed to be possible through a Quality Contract Scheme.

Nexus has been asked to begin talks with bus companies and engage with local stakeholders to develop detailed proposals to bring back to the ITA in 2012.