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South Yorkshire instigates public control of buses, but campaigners fear councils will backtrack

Documents from Barnsley and Doncaster councils reveal concerns over costs and timescales for bus franchising, which campaigners say could stifle service improvement.

The wicker bus stagecoach
Rachel Rae Photography.

South Yorkshire leaders have instigated a process that could see buses brought back under public control – but campaigners say local councils are already expressing reservations.

On Friday (4 March) South Yorkshire Mayor Dan Jarvis and the four South Yorkshire council leaders voted to carry out an assessment into whether a so-called franchising model would improve services for passengers. This is the legally mandated first step in any move towards a system where bus routes, fares and timetables are set by the elected mayor's office, rather than for-profit private bus companies.

But despite the change winning support from candidates in the upcoming mayoral election, campaigners at Better Buses for South Yorkshire (BBSY) say local councils are already suggesting they may backtrack on the process.

"The decision taken on Friday confirms what passengers have known all along: private control of our buses isn't working," Matthew Topham of the campaign told Now Then.

"Starting a formal investigation is quite a radical step for these local leaders who wouldn't understand having ambition for our local communities and economy if it bit them on the nose. It's a marker of how bad things have become that they're even investigating this change."

"But the tone of the leaders is very concerning," he continued. "Set about counting the number of times they use the word 'caveat' and you'll see why. It's clear that if we don't hold their feet to the fire, plans to improve South Yorkshire's buses could soon be left in the slow lane."

Campaigners believe the region's four councils – Sheffield, Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster – are concerned about cost risks, time risks and political risks.

A document produced by Doncaster Council says that a franchising model will "likely present significant ongoing resource implications for the [mayor's office] and consequently ongoing financial implications for the four constituent authorities." Barnsley also expressed concerns over "significant financial costs".

The cost risks involve the initial setup for a new public body to oversee the bus network, similar to Transport for London, as well as other regulatory and administrative costs. It could also involve purchasing infrastructure including depots.

Campaigners point out that some of these start-up costs are unavoidable, but say a better service will mean more money coming back into the network in the long-run instead of going to the shareholders of private companies like Stagecoach.

At a meeting of Barnsley Council's cabinet last month, leader Steve Houghton expressed concerns that the "timetable on franchising could be anything from five to ten years", citing Greater Manchester's experience fighting off legal challenges from bus companies.

Manchester instigated the same legal process as South Yorkshire in 2017, but only expect to bring buses under public control from next year. It was the first city to start this process, and campaigners say the wait has shortened with each subsequent city as legal precedents are set (Manchester's process was also delayed by the pandemic).

Cambridge, Liverpool and West Yorkshire have already started the process, and each expect to introduce public control quicker than Greater Manchester.

Topham told Now Then that the four councils are also worried about political risk: the possibility that if services are brought under democratic control, elected representatives could be blamed when things go wrong.

But he says that the 'enhanced partnership' model currently being introduced in South Yorkshire, which many see as a compromise on public control, could offer even greater political risks.

Barnsley Town Hall

Barnsley's council leader has expressed concerns about "significant financial costs" involved in franchising.

Barnsley2112 on Wikimedia Commons.

Under this system, services remain under the control of private companies but are branded the same across the region, with buses sharing the same 'liveries' and some ticketing and information services brought together.

A report by the Centre for Cities thinktank says that a shared name and brand could lead to passengers incorrectly assuming that buses are already under public control, and blaming local representatives for the poor quality of services still run by private companies.

"Voters will understandably have expectations that the mayor is in control of any bus network with their transport authority’s name and logo on vehicles," reads the report.

"In the West Midlands, under the existing Bus Alliance, all buses will be red with ‘Transport for West Midlands’ branding to inspire a similar sense of local pride that London’s red buses do in the capital. The public may perceive, incorrectly, that the mayor of the West Midlands has ultimate control over the network, even though key decisions are made by operators."

In response to concerns expressed by the four councils, BBSY point to a number of recent reports which they say outline the clear benefits of moving to a similar franchising system to London.

A report produced by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice found that “bus deregulation [in the UK] has provided a masterclass in how not to run an essential public service." It goes as far as saying that "these failures are not just an inconvenience – they have resulted in serious human rights impacts", citing people who feel trapped in their homes due to poor local services.

The report goes on to single out South Yorkshire, saying that "prior to deregulation, the county council subsidised bus fares, allowing passengers to travel at low cost almost 24 hours a day."

"But a 2020 review found that the service has since become unreliable, buses are not integrated with other forms of transport, information is scarce, fares have consistently risen above inflation, and passengers must pay a premium for a ticket that does not restrict them to a particular operator."

"In the five years following deregulation, passenger numbers fell 50 percent," it notes.

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