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‘A missed opportunity’: Mayor opts not to explore greater public transport control through bus franchising

Dan Jarvis’s office should be looking at how we could have more control over buses in Sheffield through a franchising model right now, alongside agreeing immediate improvements with bus companies. It has chosen not to.

Mayor Jarvis Water Fountain Landscape

Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis.

Sheffield City Region.

Greater public control of buses in Sheffield looks further away after a decision taken at the Sheffield City Region annual general meeting yesterday (7 June).

At the meeting it was decided that an ‘enhanced partnership’ will be formed with the private companies currently providing bus services in Sheffield, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster. One speaker suggested that in order to access a grant from central government, the combined authority had to choose one of two options – enhanced partnership or franchising.

An enhanced partnership is an agreement between local authorities and bus companies to improve existing services. Franchising would let the Mayor set routes, timetables and fares which are then put out to tender on each route.

While a decision between these two options must be made by April 2022, the Department for Transport told Now Then that both options can be explored before then – without affecting the grant from government.

‘Disgraceful plans’

Last week Mayor Dan Jarvis spoke in uncharacteristically strong terms about “disgraceful plans” by bus companies First and Stagecoach to increase the cost of some tickets by 5% – plans which were put on hold on Friday following widespread public outcry.

“First and Stagecoach talk to us about the value they attach to working in an ‘enhanced partnership’ – and then in practice their attitude seems to be: ‘You pay for the infrastructure; and we’ll put up the fares.’ It’s just not good enough,” Jarvis said.

Why not franchising?

We asked Dan Jarvis why SCR had chosen not to look into bus franchising immediately as a way of improving services for travellers.

The Mayor told Now Then that a decision to explore franchising would be “a commitment to the significant expense and effort of preparing a full business case,” and that his team “want to make sure we’ve studied the options properly before we take that decision.”

He said the enhanced partnership was an “interim arrangement to unlock funds” – but didn’t directly address the fact that franchising could be explored without threatening the grant from central government.

“We are seriously looking at franchising, but whatever we go with has to bring about real transformation for our passengers... I want nothing short of transformation for our passengers, so we have a greener, cheaper and more reliable bus service.”

‘A missed opportunity’

Local authorities are not allowed to take direct ownership of bus companies or set up new ones themselves, but many campaigners see franchising as moving in the right direction.

Matthew Topham, Public Transport Campaigner at We Own It, who wrote a piece for Now Then ahead of the SCR AGM, said that the decision was “a missed opportunity to start delivering real improvements for the region's buses”.

“At the very least, we deserved a firm commitment to investigate, in detail, the benefits of public control, even if [an enhanced] partnership was established in the meantime.

“Sheffield City Region's leaders have kicked the can down the road, with no end in sight to South Yorkshire's bus routes acting as a cash cow for private operators.”

‘Poor and unreliable’

The newly-elected Mayor of West Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin, made public control of buses a major part of her campaign, while Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has committed to the introduction of bus franchising in the city no later than 2025.

English cities where councils have held onto their bus companies, including Reading and Nottingham, have seen passenger numbers and satisfaction increase. Both have won awards for their services.

In contrast, a review of South Yorkshire’s privately-operated buses, commissioned by the Mayor himself last year, found that 60% of respondents were "dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied" with bus reliability, that the range of tickets was “overwhelming”, and that services were "poor and unreliable".

A decision to explore a bus franchising model can still be taken by Mayor Jarvis – but for thousands of passengers in Sheffield, radical service improvements and greater public control are long overdue.

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