Time to break spiral of decline for South Yorkshire's bus network: Oliver Coppard

In the latest rounds of central government bus funding, South Yorkshire was awarded just £4.50 per person. Meanwhile places like the West Midlands and Greater Manchester got over £30 for every person who lives there.

When they were elected in 2019 the Government promised us that so-called ‘levelling up’ would mean a “London-style transport system” across the UK, including here: across Barnsley, Rotherham, Doncaster and Sheffield.

The public transport system we were being promised sounds a lot like the one South Yorkshire had in the 1980s, before Margaret Thatcher got her hands on it.

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We had one of the most extensive, affordable and reliable bus systems in the country.

Sheffield Interchange, Pond Street. Picture: Marie CaleySheffield Interchange, Pond Street. Picture: Marie Caley
Sheffield Interchange, Pond Street. Picture: Marie Caley

Our buses weren’t just as good as the ones in London, what we had was better; a truly world class bus network.

Back then, we ran our own buses.

Like they are still allowed to do in London. And we were in charge of fares, routes and timetables.

But since the changes of the 1980s, bus companies like First and Stagecoach have largely run the network.

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They decide where and when to run buses, and what to charge – with the aim of trying to make as much money as they can from passengers.

All we can do is pay bus companies to run services they don’t want to run, or give them money to subsidise fares, so we can try to keep a cap on the cost of getting the bus.

That’s why our buses today are a shadow of what we once had, and why they’re getting worse.

As we get less and less money from government, we simply don’t have enough funding to pay those companies to run buses when they don’t make enough profit, or to keep fares as low as we would like.

The impact on our public transport network is plain to see.

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There are now 42 per cent fewer buses on South Yorkshire’s roads compared with 10 years ago.

This year alone, we have seen a near 20 per cent reduction in our network.

And as a result of funding cuts from government, we’ve had to put up fares for kids, because we now don’t have enough money to both run vital services and keep fares low.

Our bus network is in a spiral of decline; as buses get worse, so fewer people get the bus, which means services get worse.

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That’s not just a tragedy for everyone who now struggles to get to work, to hospital, to school or to see family and friends.

The decline of public transport also holds back our wider ambitions for South Yorkshire.

Last month we announced that South Yorkshire as the UK’s first investment zone, and a new £80m project from Boeing, building on a cluster of world-leading firms like McLaren and Forgemasters already here in our region.

But when he came to visit, I had to tell the Chancellor what I hear from those same world-leading businesses: their staff, their apprentices, now can’t get to work on a bus after another round of cuts.

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I have a plan to fix our buses; looking at whether we should bring them back under public control like they used to be: so we can set fares, decide on routes and what it costs to get the bus.

That will be a lengthy and expensive process - itself costing millions of pounds - and we should change the law to make reform easier; but I am confident it will be worth the effort.

So in the meantime I need the Government to recognise that levelling up means giving us the proper funding to fix our buses now.

We shouldn’t have to fight places like Manchester or Birmingham for money for our communities.

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And if we do, then I simply refuse to accept that we are only worth 15 per cent of the money they are getting.

On my first day in the job of Mayor, I wrote to Boris Johnson, the then-Prime Minister to make our case.

I’ve written to every Prime Minister since.

I’ve now asked the Transport Secretary Mark Harper, asking for an urgent meeting to discuss our rescue package for South Yorkshire.

With similar funding to other regions in the North, we could stabilise our network, keep fares down and even improve services.

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I am prepared to take the hard steps to fix our public transport system, like bringing our tram system into public control after thirty years of little or no ambition.

I’m a Labour mayor happy to work with a Conservative government.

I am simply asking them to match my ambition.

We can’t fix things overnight, but if this government are willing to work with me to deliver their promises on levelling-up, they will have a partner in South Yorkshire.

If not, I will fight them every step of the way.

Oliver Coppard is the Labour mayor for South Yorkshire