CAMPAIGNERS who have urged Barnsley’s ‘broken’ bus network to be brought back into public control have set their sights on securing a decision as soon as next month - after leaders behind the scheme confirmed they are moving forward at a ‘fast rate’.
Bus companies currently have powers over routes, fares and standards but a move to franchising would mean they operate under contract to the regional mayor - Oliver Coppard - who effectively sets the terms of service.
The system is used in London and Manchester to integrate services and reinvest profits.
This, local campaigners say - who lobbied at Tuesday at the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority (SYMCA) meeting - would protect passengers who have been left at the mercy of last-minute cancellations and routes being axed.
Route shake-ups and reduced services have already forced the SYMCA to step in - notably by funding some culled evening and weekend buses - but the cost of doing so has trebled to £21m since before the pandemic.
Barnsley Council leader Sir Steve Houghton told members of the Better Buses for South Yorkshire group that SYMCA bosses are taking forward the bus franchising assessment process at the ‘fastest rate of any combined authority to date’.
He said: “I agree that, right now, the way the public transport system operates is broken.
“Since the 1980s the network has been run by private bus companies who choose when to run services, what services to keep going and how much to charge for fares.
“The SYMCA works hard to step in and pay for the services private bus companies don’t want to run themselves - including many evening and weekend services - and we try to keep fares discounted for passengers.
“Since the pandemic, commercial operators have started to withdraw even more services in the region.
“At the same time, the law limits our ability to drive change - we cannot buy and run our own buses, nor can we force bus companies to run services they don’t want to, even when that isolates communities and strands passengers.
“We are taking forward the bus franchising assessment process at the fastest rate of any combined authority to date as we are committed to public transport as a public service - it is a top priority but we know there will be no easy fix.
“We need long-term solutions to how we govern our public transport system, but that will not deliver the change our communities want unless we also find a way to increase long-term, sustainable investment into our public transport system.
“That is why I am supporting short-term fixes where I can, seeking medium-term financial support from the government as a necessity and taking the difficult decisions to build the sustainable, quality, affordable public transport system for the long-term that we all want.”
A report last year claimed that a decision on progress to the next stage, originally due in autumn 2023 which announces the conclusion of the Mayor Coppard’s assessment and passes it to an auditor, will now take place early this year.
Campaigners are hopeful that the extraordinary combined authority meeting - recently scheduled for February 13 - will reveal that public control has been selected as the preferred option.
Matthew Topham, a campaigner at Better Buses for South Yorkshire, added: “The mayor promised to take our buses into public control in his manifesto in 2022.
“With an early mayoral election announced for May of this year, it’s essential that as much progress is made as possible before that point.
“The commitment to move towards franchising in the fast lane is welcome, but with local people forced to move home, in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis because they can’t rely on buses to get them to work, our region needs them to hit the accelerator again.”