Statement on QCS Board decision on Tyne & Wear bus quality contract scheme
Responding to the QCS board announcement, Newcastle Lib Dem Cllr Greg Stone (Lib Dem group leader on Tyne & Wear Integrated Transport Authority prior to its abolition) said:
"I welcome the QCS board's findings and feel that the concerns raised by the Opposition parties on the ITA before it was abolished and replaced by the Combined Authority have been borne out by the board's demolition of Nexus's case. We felt that Nexus and Labour politicians were determined to push forward an ideological approach to running the bus network that was not justifiable based on the business case they set out. It is striking that the concerns we expressed about passenger number projections and finances for the QCS deal were endorsed by the QCS Board. Nexus and NECA refused to heed these concerns.
Nexus and NECA now have very serious questions to answer about the robustness of their case and on the amount of money – likely to be in excess of £1m – spent on preparing what can only be described as a flawed prospectus. The process was delayed several times and Nexus had to change its numbers midway through because even they recognised that errors had been made. Worryingly, the statements from Nexus and NECA transport chief Nick Forbes appear reluctant to admit this and imply that the QCS Board has reached the wrong conclusions. This is emphatically not the case, but it would appear that they are unable to admit they themselves got it badly wrong.
Even more worryingly, it has been suggested that when it became clear that the scheme was in trouble, NECA and Nexus made legal representations to the QCS Board to suspend the process and withdraw the application rather than allow the highly critical final report to be published. This does not bode at all well for the transparency or accountability of these organisations in respect of public transport under devolution, particularly as there is now no scope for opposition representation on the Transport North East governance arrangements.
QCS was a radical and partisan agenda predicated on the idea that Nexus and NECA knew better how to run Tyne and Wear's buses than the professional bus operating companies. It was based on very ambitious plans to increase passenger numbers and seemed designed to plug a hole in public transport funding. However, given the huge holes in the strategy, the competence of Nexus and NECA on public transport matters must now be scrutinised very carefully, and Nexus and NECA officials need to be accountable for the flawed way that they have conducted this process.
Opposition members believed from the start of this process that politicians should acknowledge that the bus system works reasonably well in Tyne and Wear. Customer satisfaction is high, there is investment in the bus fleet, and there is a reasonably good network and service level. The failure of the QCS now means Nexus and NECA need to reflect very carefully on where to go next. It is difficult to see how they can now credibly take forward bus franchising plans without accepting they got the QCS plans badly wrong.
Opposition members on the ITA made it clear that we felt a voluntary partnership arrangement between Nexus / NECA and the bus operators offered significant opportunities to enhance bus provision and quality without the huge financial risks implicit in the QCS plan, which would have been borne by the region's taxpayers if as the QCS board suggests the projections were wholly unrealistic.
I hope it is not too late for Nexus and NECA to show some humility and work to rebuild the relationship with the bus operators that has been badly damaged by their approach to date. The public interest will be best served by Nexus and NECA and the bus operators working together closely and in collaboration to deliver a financially sustainable bus network. We must await the publication of the Buses Bill and potential opportunities for franchising and re-regulation under devolution, but the inescapable conclusion of the QCS Board's findings is that Nexus and NECA's credibility to deliver on plans for re-regulation is now compromised.
The board's findings show that QCS was clearly not the solution, and the sooner Nexus and NECA accept responsibility for this and move on, the better it will be for the travelling public and the taxpayer. I believe some senior officials now need to consider their positions in light of this outcome. In particular, the Combined Authority's transport lead member, Nick Forbes, who has been a leading champion of QCS, needs to take direct political accountability for the disastrous failure of his initative."