In a move which could signal the biggest changes to the way buses operate across the region since de-regulation in the 1980s, members of the North East Combined Authority (neca) have today agreed to submit proposals for the introduction of a Quality Contracts Scheme (QCS) for consideration by a special independent panel.
The north east is the first part of the country to reach this stage in developing a Quality Contracts Scheme under legislation introduced in 2000. The new scheme would see bus companies contracted to provide routes by Nexus on behalf of the North East Combined Authority, rather than the bus operators deciding which services to run on the basis of market forces.
Local authorities currently use their powers to supplement the network by subsidising routes which would not be commercially viable for bus operators. Under the Quality Contracts Scheme operators would provide services on a range of routes to a contractually agreed price.
The proposed scheme would allow neca to re-invest part of the profit buses make in Tyne and Wear to improve local services, support the local economy and cater for local people’s needs.
The QCS would apply to Tyne & Wear and to services which cross into Northumberland and County Durham. Leaders also agreed a protocol to avoid any adverse impacts on other services in Northumberland and County Durham.
Bus operators proposed an alternative Voluntary Partnership Agreement which would see bus companies working together with the Combined Authority to provide a co-ordinated service under a formal voluntary agreement.
Councillor Nick Forbes, (leader of Newcastle City Council and) Regional Transport lead for the North East Combined Authority said: “After a lengthy and careful consideration of the Quality Contracts Scheme proposal, and the Voluntary Partnership Agreement, the Leadership Board felt that the QCS scheme to be in the best interests of bus users in the region.
“The proposal presents the best option for increasing passenger numbers, protecting important but less profitable bus routes, preserving concessionary fares and providing a clear and easier to use bus network for passengers.
“We believe it is a very sound proposal and we await the decision of the independent Quality Contracts Board with great interest.
“We realise that the bus companies will find this decision disappointing. But leaders took their decision balancing the wider public interest and concluded that the voluntary arrangements proposed by the bus companies could simply not deliver our ambitions for better bus services. We were also clear that, without action, bus use would continue to decline, and the pressures on public funding would simply become unsustainable.”
The proposal will now be submitted to the independent Quality Contracts Board convened by the Traffic Commissioner, which will consider whether the proposal is in the public interest. Its decision will then be referred back to the North East Combined Authority for a final decision. If agreed the aim would be to introduce the Quality Contracts Scheme by April 2017.