RURAL transport issues were front and centre during a debate between North East mayoral candidates.

The issue frequently arose in the discussion between the six candidates for the mayoral race at Newcastle University on Tuesday (March 5). It was accepted that transport in Durham, Newcastle and Sunderland was generally reliable.

However, the prospective mayors all agreed that public transport for those living in rural Northumberland and County Durham was in dire need of improvement.

Labour’s Kim McGuinness and Independent candidate Jamie Driscoll clashed over Mr Driscoll’s proposals for “on demand” bus services.

READ MORE: Latest council budget fails to meet cost of living challenges, say Labour councillors

Ms McGuinness said on-demand services would be unaffordable for the new combined authority and for passengers arguing existing examples cost up to £30 a passenger. Mr Driscoll said the concept would be “far less expensive”.

He pressed his Labour rival on whether she would increase council tax to pay for more frequent bus services in rural areas, which Ms McGuinness denied.

She added: “I don’t think any public transport service will work without subsidy. The buses in rural areas need to make sense.

“We have an incredibly long way to go in rural Northumberland or County Durham villages. In rural areas services have been chipped away and people can’t rely on them.

“People need to know what is coming and when."

Mr Driscoll said: “On-demand services are the way to do it in rural areas. We need small hopper buses."

Reform UK candidate Paul Donaghy said: “I spend a lot of time in Northumberland and Durham. If you want to get to Newcastle it can take two hours.

“Bigger towns and cities aren’t the priority. Getting around cities isn’t a massive issue.

“The first place I would look is the smaller areas and the rural areas. Our job is to give the people what they need and what they want.”

Conservative candidate Guy Renner Thompson, who currently represents the rural Bamburgh ward in north Northumberland, said: “Rural life is my bread and butter.

“In urban areas, the public transport is already quite good. It just needs to be better and more connected to the rural parts of the region.

“This is a large area. What works for one town might not work for another.

“The transport system in Newcastle is very good – we have the Metro which many cities would give their left arm for."

Meanwhile Green Party candidate Andrew Gray felt the Tyne and Wear Metro was in a “sorry state”. He added: “Users of buses in rural areas won’t need me to tell you how services have collapsed, but it’s not just rural areas.

“In Silksworth, they have lost their bus into the city centre.”

Liberal Democrat candidate Aidan King added: “The main thing is rebuilding or bus services so people can rely on them. They’re atrophied to the point people don’t use them.

“The fact that 49 per cent of people don’t even consider using a bus is an indictment of that. I would provide leadership, I would convene people together to make sure we have an integrated transport system.”

The devolution deal is due to be formally ratified in Parliament this month, allowing an election to be held on May 2.