Insufficient funding, lack of leadership and a lack of accountability are the three root causes in the decline in bus passenger numbers in South Yorkshire, the Independent Bus Commission has found.

The commission, chaired by Clive Betts MP, shared their findings and recommendations with Dan Jarvis, Mayor of the Sheffield City Region, who commissioned the review last year.

The review, which was concluded before the Coronavirus pandemic, took into consideration the experiences and feedback from 5,900 members of the public, bus users, community groups, businesses and interest groups, of the impact poor and unreliable bus services have had on their lives. This evidence, as well as evidence from bus operators, local authorities, the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE) and others, has contributed towards the findings and a number of recommendations aimed at providing passengers with a bus service that meets their needs.

The findings:

  1. Funding: Evidence from Campaign for Better Transport estimated that funding for bus services in England has fallen by more than £162m (43%) since 2009/10. These figures are similar in South Yorkshire, where SYPTE’s budget has declined by 40% over the last decade
  2. Leadership: a lack of leadership by bus operators, SYPTE, local authorities and the Sheffield City Region Executive team. The review found that there were too many layers of leadership without the leverage and power to be able to deliver real change, and the opportunity for single leadership in the Mayor had been impeded by the lack of a devolution deal agreed with Government.
  3. Accountability: The review found that having an arms-length organisation, such as SYPTE, has not allowed local authorities the opportunity to make decisions about bus services – but has allowed them to shy away from responsibility.

The review recommended that a simpler ticketing system and the exploration of innovative fare structures were investigated. The review highlighted concerns about SYPTE’s leadership of the bus partnership and their approach to holding operators to account.

Over the last decade this has all resulted in poor frequency, poor reliability and poor quality and accessibility of services across South Yorkshire.

The review also found that there was poor connectivity between bus services and other modes of transport. One example, which was presented to the commission, meant that a four-mile journey required three changes, and the hourly bus service arrived after the hourly train service had departed.

Commissioners heard from passengers and representative groups about how bus service changes had impacted their lives, in some cases experiencing life-changing consequences. User groups highlighted the distress and confusion that service changes cause passengers, particularly disabled passengers.

Evidence also showed that passengers were having to endure bus service changes on a more regular basis than the timescales detailed in the bus partnership. Examples were also cited of bus routes being discontinued or re-routed without sufficient communication and lack of meaningful consultation.

Clive Betts, Chair of the Independent Bus Review, said: “Buses should be the backbone of a public transport system, yet in South Yorkshire, due to a number of factors (funding, leadership and accountability), buses have been allowed to decline and passengers have been the ones to suffer. This cannot continue.

“I wanted to carry out a bus review that put passengers at its heart and I believe my commissioners and I have done that. We have made a number of recommendations to the Mayor, that we feel not only will help bus services improve for passengers, but also sustain it for the future. We need to consider the role that buses can play in responding to the climate emergency. They are not often thought about as part of the solution, but if we get this right in South Yorkshire, then they could be.  The challenges of climate change and pollution will be as relevant in the future as it was before the pandemic hit. A proper, integrated bus system is all the more important now to help tackle these problems.

“I know that the recommendations we have made will not be popular with everyone, but we can’t afford to just ‘tinker around the edges’ of our bus services any longer.

“We’re aware that we are now talking about a bus service in a completely different context to that a few months ago. What the Coronavirus pandemic has allowed us to do is observe and understand the initial social and economic impact this has had on bus services, especially since lockdown and social distancing measures have been put in place.

“This is an opportunity to make necessary improvement to the bus system in South Yorkshire, so that when life does return to the ‘new normal’ our bus system is better, stronger and more financially resilient. If we don’t make fundamental changes now, then we may not have a bus service in the future.”

Dan Jarvis, Mayor of the Sheffield City Region, said: “I want to thank Clive and the Commissioners for their hard work and dedication in producing this important report. I also want to thank all those passengers, non-bus users, organisations and community groups who took the time to feed into this report, their input has been invaluable.

“Our bus system is vitally important for our economy and environment, and for too long it has been neglected. Passengers have suffered. Following the findings of the review and its recommendations, we owe it to them to provide a first-class bus service and one they can rely on.

“In difficult circumstances, with yearly cuts to budgets, we have lost sight of what a good bus service looks like and it’s time that we regain this perspective. This is not going to be an easy task, especially in the current climate of a health and economic crisis. But we do now have a golden opportunity to build back better – providing a bus system that properly serves passengers, the economy and the environment.

“There are a number of actions that I am going to put in place to start the process of improving our bus services. Firstly, there is a clear need for change with SYPTE and I will be addressing this in the coming months with a view of integrating them fully within the Sheffield City Region Mayoral Combined Authority. I’m also keen to look at how we improve services for disabled users and young people under 25, and I have directed my officers to explore what is possible. Also, as part of our Coronavirus Recovery Plan we will be exploring the use of technology to help improve our bus system.

“I want to be clear that rapid change will not come overnight, and I will be working with local leaders and partners to urge Government to put in place the necessary funding needed to help us make improvements. We have a big job to do but if we all play our part, we can have a world class bus service in South Yorkshire – one that properly works for its passengers and that we can be proud of.”