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Could the Mayor of South Yorkshire buy a bus company?

All 19 services in South Yorkshire operated by Powells have now stopped, dealing another blow to the region's bus users.

Powells

A Powells bus in Sheffield in 2020.

Alex Noble on Wikimedia Commons.

Public transport campaigners have called on South Yorkshire's leaders to bring Powells into public ownership after the bus company said they would close, ending all 19 services in the county.

The closure comes after the national bus companies First and Stagecoach announced they would cut a staggering one third of services in the region this September.

The Better Buses for South Yorkshire (BBSY) campaign say its now within the power of the South Yorkshire Mayor's office to buy Powells and continue running the services, ten of which run in Sheffield.

The group have set up a petition, calling on mayor Oliver Coppard to buy the company and make it a "public bus operator of last resort."

"Our bus services are in crisis, but the closure of Powell’s buses gives the mayor a golden opportunity to stop the bus cuts in their tracks," reads the petition.

"As a public bus operator, the mayor could run bus services that big private companies have decided to cut in the interests of profit."

The petition is also aimed at council leaders in Sheffield, Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster, who have expressed their anger at the decimation of bus services in South Yorkshire.

“It is deeply concerning to hear South Yorkshire will suffer from more bus cuts from this week," said Sheffield Council leader Terry Fox.

“The impact this will have on the elderly, young people, families and more at such short notice is disgraceful, and the people of Sheffield deserve more."

Laws introduced by the Thatcher government in the 1980s ban local councils from setting up their own bus companies, but campaigners say there are other routes to public ownership.

Powells 2
Alex Noble on Wikimedia Commons.

"While it is currently illegal to set up a 'from scratch' bus company, it has always been a suspected loophole that you can as a council buy a bus company," said Matthew Topham of BBSY.

"In the 2021 National Bus Strategy, the government said explicitly that the current ban on new or 'from scratch' municipal bus companies is not a complete ban, and said explicitly you can buy as a council a bus company."

Topham points out that this loophole has already been used by Pembrokeshire County Council, who bought a small operator to prevent the closure of a number of school bus services.

"We believe it is legal to buy up Powells," he added.

The Guardian recently reported that hundreds of privately-operated bus services across England could be axed in the next few weeks, as emergency Covid funding comes to an end.

In almost all other European countries bus services are either publicly owned or heavily regulated, and fares are usually significantly lower than in the UK where they remain fully privatised.

Coppard told Now Then that he has "asked officers to look into all the options open to us to protect services, including our legal position in relation to ownership of bus companies."

"People will understand that it’s a complicated process, limited by legislation in the Bus Services Act and a host of other challenges," he said.

"However, I will explore any and all opportunities to protect and improve services.”

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