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Here's the real reason behind Sheffield's "devastating" bus cuts

As a result of deregulation, up to a third of services in the region could be axed because private bus companies don't consider them profitable enough.

City centre bus stagecoach hallam union
Rachel Rae Photography

Public transport campaigners have told Now Then that privatisation and deregulation are to blame for the "devastating" cuts to bus services that were recently announced for South Yorkshire.

Up to a third of services are due to be axed at the end of July, as emergency government funding put in place at the start of the pandemic to prop up private operators comes to an end. This includes entire routes like the 32 serving Firth Park, as well as morning, evening and weekend services on routes such as the 135 through Walkley and Upperthorpe.

Sheffield Heeley MP Louise Haigh recently told the House of Commons that the proposed cuts would leave South Yorkshire with just four routes that run after 10pm, compared to an extensive network of night buses in London.

“These cuts will be devastating," Matthew Topham of the Better Buses for South Yorkshire campaign told Now Then.

"Folks may have to get into debt to buy cars, uproot their families to move closer to work, or risk assault walking home with no buses in some areas after 7pm."

The cuts are a result of South Yorkshire having a deregulated bus system as opposed to the 'franchising' model already in place in London and coming soon to Manchester. All the axed services are put out for tender by the publicly-controlled South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority (SYMCA), and are different to the more lucrative services that private bus companies set themselves.

In the capital, a public body called Transport for London set and collect the fares, with private companies merely paid a fee for operating the services. This means operators can't withdraw services on the grounds of profitability. But in South Yorkshire, even the services put out for tender by SYMCA have fares overseen by the companies themselves, meaning they will simply not bid for services if they don't think they can make a profit – as has now happened.

“Private companies have a monopoly on local services because they own all the bus depots," said Topham, explaining why the system makes it difficult for smaller operators to bid for the axed routes.

"That means if they refuse to run essential services, as they are doing now despite the mayoral authority offering to pay them, the services will just not get run."

Sheffield Council leader Terry Fox called the cuts "disgraceful", while local Green Party leader Douglas Johnson said the move was a "huge disappointment".

The changes will increase pressure on South Yorkshire mayor Oliver Coppard to speed up the transition to a London-style franchising system – he has recently promised to create a new team to look into the idea.

Since deregulation in 1986 English law has also stopped councils running bus services directly, as used to be commonplace.

Topham said it was "essential" that local public bodies like the mayor's office be given the power to run their own buses as a public service rather than to make money.

"Scotland has just lifted the ban on council-run services – the Welsh Government is in the process of changing the law too," he said.

"Only English councils are denied that power – if the government is serious about levelling up and devolution, they'll give us the power to save our buses."

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