PEOPLE are to be encouraged to get back on the buses - while leaders work on how to make them more reliable.

Councillor Andy Keir, Darlington Borough Council's cabinet member for local services, set out plans to improve local transport amid changes to people's habits with Covid-19.

These include bus service improvement plans and almost £2.2m spending on road maintenance, after the council reported it repaired 4,490 potholes last year.

Cllr Keir told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: "I think Darlington has had less bus recovery than other areas.

Read more: Some households in County Durham and Darlington could get £150 council tax rebate

"The key emphasis for us is what we can do to encourage people to get back on to buses. It's how do we convince them to go back on to buses and make the buses safe.

"It's the old adage - if you don't use it, you'll lose it.

"I think another thing is the reliability of the buses. People do complain about buses not turning up.

"We're trying to get the bus companies to reflect in their schedules what they're capable of doing."

In a recent council cabinet meeting, he said Government funding would help provide a sustainable transport network and contribute to a plan to tackle climate change.

An "enhanced partnership" is to be set up between the Tees Valley Combined Authority, the bus operators and the region's five councils to tackle challenges to the industry.

A five-point plan sets out goals including decarbonisation working towards a zero-emission bus fleet, simpler fares, improving customer experience and information, and investment and collaboration focusing on "core corridors".

He told the cabinet meeting: "I'm sure you'll agree that the pandemic has changed travel behaviour.

"There is no doubt that bus patronage has been impacted and we'll need to work hard to encourage bus users back on to the bus services to ensure they remain sustainable.

"The establishment of the bus improvement plan and enhanced partnership is a step towards addressing the challenges that the bus industry faces."

Cllr Stephen Harker said: "I think everybody's aware that what we've seen is people have come back to cars a lot more quickly that they've returned to public transport.

"I think there is a risk that post-Covid people have become more comfortable in using cars and it will be quite difficult to encourage some people to go back to public transport.

"I think it will be a difficult and long-term piece of work that we need to do, but it is something we need to tackle."

Cllr Keir replied: "We need to be getting more confidence back on to the buses.

"Bus companies need to explain clearly what they're doing to protect the public and how it will be safe.

"It's going to be a hard slog. We have to do something to try and make the environment better for people who use public transport, to make people feel safe.

"We're reviewing our transport plan and strategies to reflect the council plan priorities and the impact of Covid.

"We recognise road condition is something that concerns residents. We're committed to improving the condition of the highways network.

"We have released a new report system to ensure repairs can get done quickly."

Other plans for the next year include 20mph school schemes, walking and cycling routes, pursuing possible funding for the Darlington Northern Link Road, A68 improvements, route improvement plans, a travel support programme, bus shelters and electric vehicle charging points in car parks.

Cllr Kevin Nicholson praised the "phenomenal" number of potholes filled and said he was pleased to see funding for speeding hot-spots.

"I know residents in Eastbourne have been banging on my door for the last six years for that to happen," he added.

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