Who should control the buses?

December 3, 2023

I was invited to COP28 in Dubai this week. The gathering of international leaders, where commitments to reducing carbon emissions are made. In theory, these are the people who are going to save the world. In truth, they’re probably somewhere between the Avengers and Dad’s Army. Whilst it’s important that we don’t panic, we do urgently need to assemble our forces to save humanity.

I declined the invitation. Flying 7000 miles and adding 2.26 tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere, to attend an event where I’d have limited influence is not a good use of taxpayer money. Some politicians are all about the photo op. I chose to stay in the North East and crack on with things I can influence. This week it’s buses, trains and green energy.

Let’s start with the buses. Last Friday saw the end of the Go North East bus strike. The past few weeks have been tough – passengers inconvenienced and out of pocket. Many people had to use expensive taxis to get to work or appointments.

The bus workers had every right to push back against low pay. There is no way that workers in Sunderland, Gateshead and Percy Main are worth £5000 a year less than workers in Manchester and Warrington, doing the same job at the same company. Be honest, if you were in their position, wouldn’t you feel aggrieved?

As Mayor I could see the damage to both the striking workers and the bus passengers. That’s why I met with Unite the Union, and with Go North East’s management. I relayed messages between the two, we managed to get the bus company to return to the negotiating table. After that, they hammered out a deal and the buses are running again, with free travel for the rest of this week.

From next May devolution will expand beyond the North of Tyne. With the new £6.1 billion North East devolution deal I’ll look to bring buses back under public control to avoid disruption like this in the future.

In the North East we spend £3 billion a year on 861,000 private cars. That’s £3,484 per car per year. But 41% of adults say a lack of efficient, reliable public transport stops them ditching their car. That’s 353,000 North East car owners who’d rather save the money, but can’t. Imagine what 353,000 fewer cars would do for traffic.

I’m serious about building a Total Transport Network across the North East, under democratic public control. We can tackle the cost of living crisis and the climate crisis at the same time. That’s why last week I signed-off on £2.5 million for improvements to Central Station, as part of the new Northumberland Line connecting Ashington to Newcastle city centre. If Londoners deserve a first-class public transport system, so do we!

I’ve also been cracking on with our green investment plans. Last week I was in London for the Global Investment Summit. I’ll admit that networking in gilded rooms full of oil paintings, Conservative Cabinet Ministers, billionaires and hedge fund managers is not my typical pastime. But it is my duty as Mayor to secure investment in our regional.

The North East has world-class universities producing impressive research. But when it comes to turning that research into money and employment, the benefits travel south. This fund, established by the North of Tyne, will fund start-ups and spin-outs to keep them and their well-paid jobs here. Many of these companies are in clean energy technology, decarbonisation, life sciences and digital technology. When they grow and generate profits, that money returns to us – with interest. The value generated gets recycled back into the North East instead of being siphoned off to tax havens in the Caribbean. Now that’s proper levelling up. And yet again, we’re the first Combined Authority in the country to do it.

In the North East we’re changing the story. By investing in green technology and a first-class public transport network, we can create good jobs, generate wealth and tackle the climate crisis. Instead of jumping on a jet to Dubai, maybe Mr Sunak should have hopped on a bus up north to see how we tackle the climate crisis here.