Transport chiefs in South Yorkshire are to take what they admit is an “unusual” move and write to major out-of-town retail sites to ask for financial contributions to tendered bus services, which are paid for out of the public purse.
If they refuse, those services could be diverted elsewhere – for example, to serve a rival supermarket prepared to cover the cost.
A spokesman for the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) said yesterday that around 16 per cent of all bus miles across in South Yorkshire are paid for by SYPTE, mostly “at times and to places where bus firms won’t run because they don’t make a profit”.
Those least profitable routes include buses to rural areas, and evening journeys to services such as shops and supermarkets.
The spokesman said: “In a bid to limit the potential impact that further budget cuts could have, SYPTE is appealing to retailers to help support the services which carry their customers and employees.
“If one supermarket chooses not to help support the bus then this may mean services are diverted to a competitor who will meet the costs.”
Of the £84m annual budget of SYPTE, £7.8m is spent on subsidised services, including the rural and weekend services as well as the Free Bee service that runs in Sheffield and Rotherham centres.
David Young, deputy interim director general of SYPTE, said: “These are hard times and they call for creative measures.
“We have made big cuts to our budgets over the past few years and have lost significant numbers of staff.
“But whilst we have tried to limit the effect on public transport users we have reached a point where further cuts are likely to hit services.
“The last thing we want to do is cut bus services and so we are asking shops and supermarkets in some areas to dig deep and support the services which run to their shops and help keep their tills ringing.”
In the last financial year, SYPTE was forced to make £6.2m of budget cuts and also made 16 per cent of its workforce redundant.
Coun Mick Jameson, chairman of the South Yorkshire Integrated Transport Authority, said that he hoped retailers would “rise to the challenge and contribute to the funding of local bus services”.
He added: “For years we have helped customers get to their stores.”
Mr Young said that, with further budget cuts likely, withdrawals of some bus services would “probably start to take place within the next few months”.
Discussions could start soon on which bus services would be set for the chop.
However, Robert Lane of Lane Walker chartered surveyors and chairman of the Sheffield Chamber retail forum, said the move would make things even more difficult for already-struggling traders.
He said: “It is common knowledge that retailers in our towns and city centre are finding it difficult to make a profit, caused in part by the cost of occupation in rent, rates and service charge.
“Whilst rents are softening, business rates in our region are too high and with Central Government cancelling the proposed 2015 revaluation, this situation will persist for the foreseeable future.
“Any proposal therefore that will increase their cost base will not be welcome and it does not seem equitable that retailers should pay for a bus service that should be commercially viable and is for the benefit of many individuals and businesses of all types.”
He added: “However, if the bus service is provided specifically to an out of town retail outlet or to a supermarket that will directly benefit, then there may be an argument to support such a service.”