Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

What’s driving inequality in Sheffield?

With such disparity in car ownership across the city, public transport and active travel need to be central to any serious debate about reducing inequality, argues Charlie Heywood-Heath.

Spital hill street art
Rachel Rae Photography

In January, data released from the 2021 Census revealed that 29% of households in Sheffield do not own a car, compared to 23% of households across England. At face value this may not seem significant, but a deeper dive exposes wider implications for inequality and opportunity across the city.

Sheffield infamously has an east-west divide and this is no less apparent when looking at car ownership across the city. Whilst fewer than 11% of households in some of the most affluent parts of Sheffield, like Fulwood, Millhouses and Dore, do not have a car, this figure increases to 40% for neighbourhoods in the north-east, including Darnall and Tinsley, and reaches nearly 50% in areas like Burngreave and Firth Park.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when you look at a map of inequality in Sheffield, the same pattern can be seen; neighbourhoods in the south-west of Sheffield are in the top 20% least deprived areas in the UK, whilst those north-east of the city are in the top 20% most deprived.

Under a properly functioning economic system, low levels of car ownership would be something to herald, a sign of a sustainable and egalitarian society, and certainly not a prerequisite for individual prosperity and opportunity. But today in England, many households not only lack access to a car, but also a reliable and fully functioning public transport system and active travel network. All of this comes against the backdrop of growing income inequality, unemployment and a rapidly rising cost of living.

Some efforts have been made in Sheffield over the last few years to improve public transport. The Department for Transport introduced a £2 bus fare cap which was extended by South Yorkshire Mayor Oliver Coppard, who also last year announced plans to bring Sheffield's trams back under public ownership. But the reduced cost of a bus is meaningless if it doesn’t turn up or take you to where you need to go in the first place. Shockingly, nearly a quarter of services in South Yorkshire are currently under threat of being cut according to Sheffield Heeley MP Louise Haigh, due to the withdrawal of Coronavirus-related funding by central government.

Notable axes have included the 10/10a in Manor Park, 32/32a in Firth Park, 135/135a from Rotherham, with other key services facing disruptions including the X74, which now has significantly reduced early morning and evening journeys. Other popular bus routes across the north-east of the city, like the 97, 18 and 75/76, also provide some of the worst services, with punctuality dropping as low as 68% during peak times. This is before we even consider the running times of these routes, which disproportionately affect people on lower incomes who are more likely to work jobs with anti-social hours.

If we are to address rising inequality seen in Sheffield, we can’t ignore the fact that the most deprived parts of our city are denied access to many of the employment opportunities that could transform their lives. Norman Tebbit, former Secretary of State for Employment under Margaret Thatcher, famously suggested that people just needed to “get on [their] bike and find a job.” Even if the answer was as simple as that, it would help if residents in the north-east of Sheffield actually had the active travel infrastructure in place to safely and successfully cycle across the city.

Looking at the census data, the only thing that is regular about transport in Sheffield is the negative experience of north-east communities. This problem is recognised by the Council, with their Transport Strategy acknowledging that if no action is taken by 2035 there could be a further 20% increase in bus delays.

Yet under the current system there is very little Sheffield Council can do. If a bus route isn’t profitable, operators can withdraw it, an issue which has been made far worse since Covid. If the Council wanted to invest in their services and make improvements, they would need to first overcome 14 years of austerity from central government which has led to a 48% reduction since 2010 in funding for buses and compete with the other public services desperate for council cash.

This begs the question: how are neighbourhoods which are more likely to suffer from inequality expected to improve their employment and income prospects if they don’t have access to a car and the alternatives they rely on don’t turn up – or don’t even exist?

Improving public transport and active transport in our most deprived neighbourhoods is central to this debate and it presents the opportunity to reduce two very different kinds of drivers: those in cars, and those which worsen inequality.

More Equality & Social Justice

More Equality & Social Justice