TOWN halls will today be promised London-style powers to decide bus routes and fares to end the chaos caused by 20 years of private operators.

Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander will unveil radical changes allowing councils to seize control of bus services by awarding a contract to a single firm.

The move will delight North-East authorities, who have long condemned the system of deregulation that allows the private firms to decide which services to run.

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It means the region will never again suffer a no-holds-barred bus service battle like the one that drove Darlington's oldest transport company off the road in the 1990s.

Mr Alexander hopes that ending the free-for-all at bus stops will reverse an alarming decline in passengers outside London - the only area that escaped deregulation in 1986.

A Whitehall source said: "This will end the bus wars and give punters what they want - a reliable bus that turns up on time.

"Authorities will be able to franchise services on particular routes to particular companies, which will then allow them to decide the level of fares and the frequency.

"We want to get more people on to buses and, at the moment, quite understandably in some areas, fewer people are using them."

Under deregulation, the North-East has suffered an 11 per cent fall in passenger numbers since 2000 - the biggest slump in England.

The Audit Commission warned last year that the Government would miss its target to increase bus journeys in the region by 2011.

Operators must give 56 days' notice before they launch services on new routes, change timetables, or axe routes.

As a result, popular routes become congested with buses run by rival firms, while councils fork out expensive subsidies on less-used services - or risk losing them altogether.

Legislation already exists to allow town halls, and passenger transport executives in areas such as Tyne and Wear, to impose a "quality contract" by picking a single operator.

But no authority has been able to meet the stringent test in the law that insists the change must be the "only practicable solution".

That strict test will now be removed, allowing authorities to hold a competition to pick an operator - and to bar all others from competing on those routes.

However, the announcement is likely to be greeted with howls of protest from the big bus companies that have made lucrative profits from deregulation.

To calm that anger, Mr Alexander will demand authorities prove they are putting in extra bus lanes and other measures in return for their powers.

Darlington became a national cause celebre for opponents of public transport deregulation when the town became the epicentre of a three-way battle involving council-owned DTC, and private companies United and Stagecoach.

When Stagecoach failed to buy DTC, it began poaching council drivers and offering passengers free fares. The moves effectively put DTC out of business. Days later, Stagecoach scrapped its free offer.

Within two years, Stagecoach and United had agreed deep cuts in services. Town centre departures were cut by 41 per cent and 30 drivers lost their jobs.

Today's consultation will also pledge to boost the powers of regional traffic commissioners to penalise poorly-performing bus firms and local councils.

And it will outline ways to make it easier for community groups, particularly in rural areas, to set up their own bus services where the big firms have opted out.