Kim McGuinness has started work as the new mayor of the North East – and has immediately set plans in motion to take the region’s buses back under public control.

The 38-year-old was elected last week as the mayor of a new combined authority stretching across Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, and Durham, as the Labour candidate saw off a challenge from independent rival Jamie Driscoll.

And on day one of her new job on Tuesday, she confirmed that a major shake-up of the North East’s public transport is in the works.

The new mayor has the power to franchise the region’s bus services – meaning that, while bus operators will still be contracted to run services, control over fares, routes, and timetables will be in public hands rather than those of private companies.

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) from her new Newcastle city centre office in the Lumen building on Tuesday morning, Ms McGuinness announced that she has already ordered her officers to begin the first steps in the franchising process.

The former Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner said: “It has been a really busy weekend preparing for everything and it is nerve-racking. I think it will take a while for it to sink in, but I am also really excited.

“It is a really big time for the region as we start to take power back into our own hands and make our own decisions. Already this morning I have instructed the organisation to start looking at how we bring our buses under public control.

“That was a key pledge through the campaign period and when I spoke to people it was a big concern for a lot of people in most parts of our region. The majority of public transport journeys are taken by bus, yet in the last 12 years we have lost a third of services. It needs sorting and we have started that process on day one.”

Ms McGuinness and Mr Driscoll had both made taking public control over bus services a key pledge of their election campaigns, with such a model already in use in Greater Manchester and the likes of Liverpool and West Yorkshire set to follow suit.

The new mayor admitted that the reorganisation would “take a long time” and that she would have to work with bus companies to deliver improvements ot services in the meantime, but said she was “hopeful” of the process being quicker than the six-year slog endured in Greater Manchester.

She added: “I have spoken to the operators during the campaign. I don’t think this is a move that will surprise anybody. But I want to work with them. This is not a combative thing, it is just what needs to happen in our region to improve public transport. 

“And in the meantime we are going to have to work together to improve services as they currently stand because too many people are let down by a bus service that just isn’t there anymore. That prevents them from reaching their true potential at work or from seeing friends or family as often as they want or, in the worst case scenario, prevents young people from being able to access education.”

Ms McGuinness has moved into the Lumen office previously occupied by Mr Driscoll in his role as North of Tyne mayor, which has been abolished to make way for the new, larger mayoral authority.

She told the LDRS that setting up a commission to reinvigorate the North East’s high streets, tackling child poverty, and building more social housing were among her top priorities.

Recommended reading:

Get more from The Northern Echo with a digital subscription. Get access for 5 months for just £5, or get 40% off an annual subscription with our latest offer. Click here.

Asked what she hoped to achieve in her first 100 days in the job, she replied: “I would like to be some way down the path of knowing what we are going to be doing about the buses, with a clear action plan around our high streets, housing, and child poverty.

“But one of the big things about this is also talking up the region – people will see a lot more of that. I think this is the best place in the world and it was clear throughout the campaign that other people think that too. Everybody loves the region, but we have to be talking about it nationally and internationally.

“That is what will attract visitors and investment and put us on the map in the way that other parts of the country like Manchester, Leeds, and London are but we just aren’t. We need that voice.”

However McGuinness' plans on buses will face scrutiny from local Tories.

Sedgefield MP Paul Howell said her plans were "uncosted, undated and unclear".

He said: “I congratulate Kim McGuinness on her election last week – as Conservative Member of Parliament for Sedgefield, I am willing to work with people from any party to improve bus services, which have clearly been impacted by the loss of usage in the last few years, following on from the global Coronavirus pandemic.

"However, whilst Kim’s plans have been discussed for a long period of time during the campaign, they remain uncosted, undated and unclear.

"It is thanks to the Conservative Government that new powers have been brought to our region. This does include the ability to franchise – but we have made clear that this can be expensive and slow and are better suited to urban areas like London. In West Yorkshire, their Labour Mayor’s plans for a franchise scheme look set to cost £100million over four years and it has taken six years in Labour Manchester, and Kim McGuinness, as our new mayor, has already conceded in the press that these changes are likely to take time – and that is very revealing.

"Support must be quick and targeted to ensure routes survive now - and that is why the Government’s Enhanced Partnership model which allows engagement with companies is useful. The £2 billion Bus Recovery Grant in 2020, the £167 Million Bus Service Improvement Plan for the North East and the recent £1 Billion reallocation of funds to the North and Midlands from HS2 is typical of the agile support our Government continues to give for our vital rural routes and I continue to support this approach.

"I am writing to her to ask for a meeting to see how she is going to ensure this and her other plans will be appropriate for Durham as well as the Northern part of the region which she has already represented and will be more familiar with.”

Meanwhile City of Durham MP Mary Kelly Foy said: "Kim's plan to bring the region's buses back under public control was one of the most talked about pledges on the doors during the election campaign.

“Our broken bus system in Durham urgently needs an overhaul. My constituents are sick and tired of being late for school and work, missing important health appointments and being subjected to persistent delays or buses that sometimes just simply don't turn up.

“It is time to put passengers before profit, and I'll work with Kim in any way necessary to help her "Angel Network" to become a reality."