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A Magazine for Sheffield

Dan Jarvis’s bus partnership plans expose his lack of ambition for South Yorkshire

Matthew Topham of We Own It explains why franchising is the only way forward for Sheffield's declining bus network.

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Buses in Manchester will be brought back under public control starting in 2023.

Mangopear Creative (Unsplash)

This morning, leaders from across the Sheffield City Region will hold their annual general meeting. One of the key issues up for discussion is the future of South Yorkshire’s bus network.

Since the 1980s, England's bus network outside London has been under the control of private companies. They not only run the services but get to set the prices, routes, and employment, safety, and environmental standards in their own interests.

It’s this system of private control that allows companies to even consider hiking fares by 5% when many are still reeling from the economic blow of the pandemic and a decade of wage stagnation.

Even the government has admitted that the "fragmented, fully commercialised market" must end. But rather than taking this as the incentive to crack on with delivering public control, South Yorkshire’s leaders look set to settle for the government’s latest attempt to prop up our deregulated system – a so-called “enhanced partnership” – rather than going for public control.

Partnerships are simply more of the same but with added horse-trading. Private companies would still be in control, with the council offering generous public investment for a small number of voluntary improvements. Mayor Dan Jarvis claims to recognise this, saying the view of Stagecoach and First seems to be, ‘You pay for the infrastructure; and we’ll put up the fares.’

And yet the recommendation set to come before the AGM today is that the “Mayoral Combined Authority (MCA) pursues an Enhanced Partnership for the South Yorkshire Bus Network.”

The excuse given by some of the region’s leaders is that a partnership scheme serves as a stopgap on the way to public control down the line.

Any credibility in this argument would fall away if the plans proposed to the Sheffield City Region AGM are accepted later this morning, as the government framed the June deadline as a key moment for deciding “which statutory path to follow,” be it a partnership scheme or assessment of public control. If public control is the long-term aim, why not start the official investigation now, even if you then deliver a partnership in the meantime? The two are not mutually exclusive.

Politicians will be at pains to point out that establishing a partnership does not prevent them from pursuing public control in the long run. But the government clearly suggested that Mayoral Combined Authorities that wish to investigate public control should start now, even if they choose to implement partnership working first.

With the option of launching both processes – i.e. negotiating a partnership and investigating public control – clearly on the table at this morning’s meeting, why do South Yorkshire’s leaders look set to kick the can down the road? It seems on buses, their ambition is all talk.

Sheffield City Region’s leaders may claim that local people are asking them to move too fast and that their proposed partnership is a (potentially) temporary compromise.

It’s worth reminding them that the demand for public control is already a halfway house. Regulation still allows private companies to extract wealth from the local economy, albeit at a lower level than under the current system, and pay dividends to their international shareholders.

It’s public ownership, as seen in the municipal bus companies of Edinburgh and Reading, that would ensure our buses are truly run for people, not profit. Public control is the compromise and failing to start the official investigation now shows a lack of ambition for South Yorkshire.

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We Own It campaigns against privatisation and for 21st century public ownership.

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