Public Transport Authority for South Yorkshire

– in Westminster Hall at 4:57 pm on 27th April 2022.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley 4:57 pm, 27th April 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the potential merits of a public transport authority for South Yorkshire.

It is a pleasure to serve under your tutelage today, Mr Hosie. In this debate, I am calling for the creation of Transport for South Yorkshire: a local government body responsible for co-ordinating South Yorkshire’s transport network and delivering a clear, unified regional strategy.

Since my election, I have heard loud and clear the repeated calls for change to the dismal transport network in our region, both from my constituents in Rother Valley and residents across South Yorkshire. So pressing is the issue that I raised the sorry state of our buses at my first ever attendance at Prime Minister’s questions. I set up the Rother Valley Transport Task Force to work with constituents on improving our local transport facilities and have heavily canvassed local opinion. I have held many meetings with local bus executives and organised residents’ meetings with the managing director of First Bus, so that my constituents can pose questions directly to the decision makers at the operators. My engagement with constituents has informed my views on what residents want and why Transport for South Yorkshire is so necessary.

For too long, we have endured terrible provision, which is fragmented between operators, with unreliable and infrequent services.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I am with the hon. Gentleman on the arguments he has mounted so far. However, does he recognise that we had the sort of cheap, reliable, popular and well-used service that he aspires to in South Yorkshire until a Conservative Government took it apart in the 1980s?

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. Unfortunately, as I was born in the late 1980s, I cannot recall such a service. When I look to London and Manchester—even when I look to West Yorkshire—I see what can be done. I will get to that later on in my argument.

At the moment, we have limited and slow routes and expensive fares, which results in poor social and economic outcomes for South Yorkshire. Our residents are unable to access employment opportunities and key public services in health and education, as well as social gatherings. The lack of connectivity cuts off our towns and villages from each other and large regional cities, reducing our ability to pool world-class services in our population clusters. Most worrying of all, the most vulnerable in our communities are left isolated and denied access to a key lever for poverty alleviation: reliable and affordable transport.

It is clear that enough is enough. My campaign to create Transport for South Yorkshire is a core part of my transport plan, and will utilise the devolved transport powers that lie with the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority and the Mayor of South Yorkshire. Transport for South Yorkshire must be in charge of a bold and ambitious regional transport strategy for the decades ahead. It must place capital transport investment and sustainable green technology at the heart of transport in South Yorkshire. Transport for South Yorkshire must integrate buses, the Sheffield super tram, local trains, principal road routes, taxis, waterway travel and cycling provision, into one comprehensive, holistic and unified network. Furthermore, Transport for South Yorkshire will ensure that the wants and needs of local communities are a crucial part of the decision-making process and are accounted for at all times. Our rural communities will also benefit from the investment in both the transport service and infrastructure.

I will first address the state of our bus network, and how Transport for South Yorkshire will transform bus travel. The creation of this body provides the opportunity for huge investment in our buses, with the benefits overseen by local residents rather than private company shareholders pocketing large revenues with little investment in return—as we currently see. Transport for South Yorkshire will ensure the integration of the bus network across the county, and will feed into the Bus Back Better national bus strategy. The proposals that I have mentioned have been supported by the managing director of First Bus, who, in a public meeting, noted that bus franchising based on the Greater Manchester model is good for business, good for operators and ultimately good for the public.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I am fascinated that the focus of the hon. Member’s speech on bus improvement is on structure. Would he not agree that investment is critical, and therefore that it was deeply regrettable that the Government turned down the £474 million bid for bus improvements that we made?

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

I thank the hon. Member for his point; it will be no surprise to him that I will address it later on in my speech—it makes up a good part of my speech. Unfortunately, those plans were not very ambitious. What I am outlining is a more ambitious programme. The subject of this debate is the public body, but, do not worry, I will address that failed and lacklustre bid later on in my speech. [Interruption.] There will be opportunities to intervene later if the hon. Member wishes to.

Transport for South Yorkshire must achieve the following vital objectives. First, it must preside over a fully integrated, high-capacity bus network for South Yorkshire. In order to do this, it must set standardised, affordable bus fares across the county to apply to all services and routes, regardless of the private operator. That means a ticket or pass can be used on any bus, anywhere in the county. Additionally, the transport body must subsidise more affordable fares for eligible pensioners, children and disabled people. Furthermore, it must centrally plan and control all routes, timetables and funding. All services must operate under Transport for South Yorkshire livery and branding, as is the case in London.

Secondly, Transport for South Yorkshire must deliver more frequent bus services and many more routes. There should be a mixture of routes that link up every town and village in our region, and superfast direct routes between large towns and cities. The transport body must pay for better services at times and in areas where no commercial bus services are provided, or should make the awarding of certain lucrative franchises contingent on the provision of universal service obligation routes by private companies.

Thirdly, there must be clear performance targets and benchmarks to guarantee reliable service, with the option to remove the franchise from an under-performing private company if necessary. In line with that, there must be an easily accessible central complaints procedure for passengers, with the right to official response.

Fourthly, Transport for South Yorkshire must invest in the region’s physical and digital bus infrastructure, making bus travel easier and smarter. The body must introduce a clear and consistent network map and a bus numbering system that can be easily understood and remembered. There may need to be a wholesale revamp of South Yorkshire’s bus stations, bus stops and bus shelters, with new modern transport interchanges where necessary. In terms of digital infrastructure, there should be a mobile app, allowing people to plan their route and track their bus; electronic bus boards at every stop that indicate the time until the next bus; and tap-in and tap-out contactless fare technology, as operates in Manchester and London.

I have laid out what Transport for South Yorkshire must achieve in the realm of buses. However, my ambitious vision lies in stark contrast to what has already been proposed by the combined authority. Paul Blomfield is clearly keen for me to talk about the fact that the UK Government did not accept the combined authority’s bid for the bus service improvement plan, signed off by the Mayor. The plan purportedly aimed to bring in a fare cap, new bus shelters and an improved fleet. The Mayor claimed that central Government had “shafted” South Yorkshire by rejecting the bid. The truth, however, is that the bid failed because it was nowhere near ambitious enough. The people of South Yorkshire want a similar integrated transport system to the one in London. The lack of ambition is why the combined authority’s bid failed.

This is not a red or blue thing: the Government awarded transport funding to Labour-run Greater Manchester and Labour-run West Yorkshire because they were miles ahead of us in their thinking and ambition. Transport for Greater Manchester is a prime example of replicating the successes of Transport for London from the same base as ours in South Yorkshire. Put simply, all other mayoral combined authorities are far more advanced in this process than we are in South Yorkshire. South Yorkshire is no further ahead, and the combined authority has just said that it will look into franchising. It is not good enough; there can be no more excuses.

This is the truth about transport in South Yorkshire: the combined authority has the power to change transport and be truly ambitious and country-leading, but it always plumps for the minimum it can get away with and then blames the Westminster Government. South Yorkshire leaders should rush to embrace franchising powers and take back accountability, but too many would rather continue to blame the past or what happened many years ago in the ’80s, rather than their current inaction. That is why we need Transport for South Yorkshire with a clear mission statement, as well as effective, transparent leadership and governance structures, all held against discrete and ambitious targets.

However, buses are not all that Transport for South Yorkshire would oversee. Trains are an efficient and environmentally friendly model of transport, and Transport for South Yorkshire would make transport by train a priority.

It is also disappointing that the combined authority ignores the small communities, which badly need rail connections. My campaign to reopen the old South Yorkshire Joint Railway would regenerate those former mining towns and link them up. Despite the line being for the occasional freight train, and my plan securing provisional backing from the rail operator, the combined authority has not yet endorsed the project. Transport for South Yorkshire should look to reopen closed lines that connect our former mining towns and villages.

Furthermore, we need a new train station at the growing village of Waverley. There is no point having high-skilled industrial jobs at the manufacturing park there if residents from small towns across South Yorkshire cannot reach it by multiple modes of public transport, such as by train. My constituents tell me constantly that they need bus routes and active transport options that connect communities to where employment options are. There are few, if any, direct services in my part of South Yorkshire to the Advanced Manufacturing Park or Crystal Peaks, or to the big employers around Manvers and Doncaster. It is time to invest in South Yorkshire’s rail network to make it the envy of every other region and ensure residents have access to amenities and employment opportunities.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

I will give way one more time to the hon. Gentleman, but I am sure he will want to make his own speech at some point.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

Order. The hon. Gentleman asked you to give way and you said yes. We do not need a commentary.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way one more time. He talks ambitiously and grandly about the need for investment, and he is absolutely right, but how does he think that sits alongside the practical experience of this Government, who have cut spending on public transport from £3.9 billion in 2009 to £2.4 billion in 2020? Where is the ambition there?

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

That is an interesting point, but once again I look at what happened in Manchester and West Yorkshire. They got Government funding because their plans were ambitious. There is no point putting money into a plan that will not work, or will provide only minimal benefits. We want a grand plan to get the funding and resources we need, and I hope Transport for South Yorkshire will be the body for that.

This is not just about buses and trains; active transport should be at the heart of operations. Currently, there is a chronic lack of cycle routes for rural communities, leaving cyclists at the mercy of dangerous stretches of road. The combined authority is in charge of active travel and has been given a pot of money to that end. However, its cycling plans exclude rural towns and villages, and are mainly focused on the big towns. The combined authority is spending money on poorly designed cycle lanes in Rotherham town centre, but the communities that need them are not on the radar. For instance, in one local to me there is a great appetite for a cycle lane between Harthill and Kiveton Park. Transport for South Yorkshire should focus on cycling for all communities in the county. After all, cycle lanes are good for the environment, health and connectivity, and they reduce the danger of cycling on the roads.

As with active transport, I believe that a good transport system is holistic and recognises the worth of modes of transport beyond road and rail. A good example is the Chesterfield canal, a beautiful and varied 46-mile stretch of waterway that links Nottingham, South Yorkshire and Derbyshire. Transport for South Yorkshire should make the nine-mile Rother Valley portion of the canal fully navigable from start to finish. It should also fund a new marina at Kiveton Park and make the Rother Valley link a reality, connecting the Chesterfield canal to the rest of the waterway system. Transport for South Yorkshire’s support for the regeneration of the canal would have benefits for transport connectivity, health, leisure and economic rejuvenation.

We must also consider the condition of our roads in South Yorkshire. The combined authority is in charge of pinch points, but it has not tackled them in areas such as Rother Valley. Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council admits that there is an issue, but it and the combined authority always seem to focus on pet projects in Sheffield city centre and Rotherham town centre, instead of addressing issues on our roads in South Yorkshire. [Interruption.] There is chortling on the Opposition Benches, but where is the solution for the A57 Todwick roundabout, which constantly has accidents and congestion? Where is the solution for the Whiston Worrygoose roundabout congestion? We do not have it.

Transport for South Yorkshire would ensure that residents could not be penalised for using their cars to get to work if viable, efficient and affordable alternatives are not provided. Currently, the combined authority is considering a workplace parking levy on companies that have a certain number of parking spaces for employees. That is altogether unreasonable, and it is essentially a tax on business and workers. It is completely irrational to impose that on residents of areas outside Yorkshire’s four conurbations because, unfortunately, driving a car is the only way to get to work in the light of the combined authority’s failure to institute a robust local transport system. We want to reduce reliance on cars, but it has to be in line with the quality of transport provision locally.

Other transport issues that must be addressed include the installation of electric vehicle charging points across South Yorkshire to encourage the transition away from fossil fuel-powered combustion engines, as well as the need to work with the Government to remove the safeguarding of local land for the now scrapped phase 2b of High Speed 2, which I welcome. All of this can be achieved with Transport for South Yorkshire. However, the power to create the body lies with the South Yorkshire Mayor. The authorities in Sheffield must realise that the South Yorkshire passenger transport executive is not sufficient to deal with the transport crisis and does not have the powers to revolutionise travel in our region. Any plans that have been put forward so far by the combined authority exclude rural communities in South Yorkshire, such as mine in Rother Valley, and do not correspond to residents’ wants and needs. I therefore call on the new Mayor, from whatever party they are, to work with me to establish Transport for South Yorkshire. I stand ready to begin discussions with them on this issue.

I have a couple of asks of the Minister before I wrap up. The first is that Transport Ministers should strongly encourage the combined authority to franchise transport by creating Transport for South Yorkshire, based on the London and Manchester models. Currently, the people of South Yorkshire are being left behind by proposals that are lacklustre and unambitious. The second is that once the combined authority finally submits a funding proposal to the Government to create Transport for South Yorkshire, with the full powers and remit that I have outlined, the Department should judge approval of funding for the plan based on the plan’s ambitions and whether it actually addresses the systematic inaction and underfunding in transport locally, which has failed residents for years. Only an ambitious proposal that is fit for purpose should be accepted. The people of Rother Valley and South Yorkshire deserve better than half-baked, half-thought-out schemes. We want the full gamut, and we want what Manchester and London have—we deserve that.

I look forward to the long-overdue creation of a transit system of which we can all be proud. I cannot wait to be an eager passenger on a wonderful Transport for South Yorkshire service in the very near future.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Labour, Barnsley Central 5:14 pm, 27th April 2022

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. I should perhaps begin by declaring a very relevant interest as the Mayor of South Yorkshire—at least for another week or so.

I congratulate Alexander Stafford on securing this important debate, but let us now inject some reality into it. In my four years as Mayor, I made transport a central priority. I knew just how important it was for productivity, access to opportunity and quality of life. By 2023, we will have invested £87 million in cycling and walking, with more to come. We are getting people fit, making it easier to get around and cutting car use. We are investing £100 million to put our trams on a solid footing and, I hope, to lay the foundation for expansion. We have put millions into bus concessions as well as into better infrastructure and services. We gave young people 80p fares so that they can afford to get about, get to work or to their studies, and we began the formal process of investigating bus franchising.

We have been working under huge pressure to protect and, where we can, improve our bus network across the whole region—in rural villages just as much as our urban centres. I am immensely proud of our record, but I am also deeply frustrated that we could not do more. More powers would have been invaluable. Of course, regional governments like South Yorkshire should play a role like Transport for London has in London, with a fully empowered public transport authority providing co-ordination and local control.

We already have a strategic role, but the truth is that powers are not enough without funding. For all the fine words, the reality is that from 2009 to 2020, Government spending on public transport in the UK declined by almost 40% from £3.9 billion to £2.4 billion. The Government spend almost three times per head more in London that in Yorkshire and the Humber. Meanwhile, amid all the talk of devolution, the Government’s default model is still forcing local government to endlessly compete for disparate, uncertain, centrally controlled and inadequate pots of money, sapping resources and hamstringing any attempts at strategic planning. South Yorkshire shows that especially well.

The national bus strategy expressed a grand aspiration, so we produced—let us be very clear about this—an ambitious, detailed £474-million bus service improvement plan, including free travel for under-18s, daily and weekly fare capping and a network of bus priority routes, but we were rejected along with 60% of other applicants. That was perhaps inevitable given that the available funding, which was originally promised to be in excess of £3 billion, ended up being just over £1 billion. Let me say that again: most areas will get nothing under the Government’s flagship bus improvement programme.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

On that programme, will the hon. Member acknowledge that there was just over £1 billion available from the Government for the whole country, yet South Yorkshire put in a bid for £400 million? That is almost half the money for the entire country. Surely that shows unrealistic expectations from South Yorkshire. Surely we should be more realistic.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Labour, Barnsley Central

Oh dear, oh dear. I thought we would get through this in a reasonable way. The hon. Member for Rother Valley cannot have it both ways. On the one hand, he says we are not ambitious enough; on the other, he has just said that, actually, we are being too ambitious. The truth of the matter is—and the hon. Gentleman really needs to do his homework—that when we began the process of submitting the bus service improvement plan, the steer from national Government was that the money that would be available nationally from revenue funding would be well in excess of £3 billion. That is a statement of fact, and I am sure the Minister would not demur from it. The truth is that we have ended up with a pot of money that is just above £1 billion for the whole country. The hon. Gentleman has to do the maths and understand that, in conversation with the Government, we were given assurances that there would be in excess of £3 billion. That £3 billion was massively reduced to £1 billion. That is the reality of the situation we find ourselves in. I wish that were not the case—honestly, I do—but it is.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

I would be grateful if the hon. Member outlined why West Yorkshire got the money whereas South Yorkshire did not. To me, that shows that the money was available and was on the table. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, our bid was not good enough to make the cut, whereas West Yorkshire’s bid was. Clearly they got it right and we got it wrong.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Labour, Barnsley Central

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point in terms of getting detailed feedback from the Government. He may have received that; we have not. Let us be honest about it: it would be foolish and naive of anybody not to assert that this is a political decision taken by the Government. Where is the hon. Member for Rother Valley when it comes to lobbying the Government to ensure that we secure the resources we need to invest in our services? It is not the case that our bid lacked ambition. We will see what the Minister has to say, but I honestly do not believe that any Minister of this Government could look this House in the face and say that the bid lacked ambition, because it just did not.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Labour, Barnsley Central

So let us get detailed feedback from the Government as to why they did not want to put money into what was a detailed, ambitious proposal. A huge amount of time and investment was put into it; frankly, it is not the case that it was not ambitious. That is a ludicrous assessment of the work, and is actually pretty offensive to some very dedicated and professional officers who worked with local authorities and a range of stakeholders, including nationally and in the Department for Transport, with whom I think we have a good relationship. I have a lot of time for the Minister. He is good at his job, and I do not blame him or hold the Government entirely responsible for this decision. The answers to some of the questions that need to be responded to lie in No. 11 Downing Street. Why was it that the Treasury, having initially promised £3 billion, got us down to £1 billion?

The hon. Member for Rother Valley can seek to argue that our bid was not ambitious, but I will rebut that at every point, because it is not the case. A lot of good work went into it, based on the very good report that my hon. Friend Mr Betts produced a while ago. A lot of time, energy and investment went into drawing that plan together. The decision taken by the Government was entirely political, and did not in any way reflect the quality of the bid.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee

I apologise for coming in late, Mr Hosie; I had a meeting that I could not avoid. My hon. Friend is right to mention the bus review, because an attack on these proposals is an attack on all the people who contributed to that review—the 6,000 people who told us what was wrong and what needed putting right. If Alexander Stafford is going to make a serious contribution, does he not have to set out what, of the £400 million or more that was bid for by the combined authority, he thinks was excessive; which bits he would have taken out; and how much he thinks it would have been realistic to bid for? That is what we need to hear; not vague accusations that the bid was too much on the one hand, and that it was not ambitious enough on the other hand.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Labour, Barnsley Central

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. For the remainder of my term—which, admittedly, is a pretty short period of time—I am very happy to sit down with the hon. Member for Rother Valley and go through the detail of the bid that we submitted. The hon. Member has chosen today to make these points; he has not come to me previously. I routinely brief local Members of Parliament, and I have not seen the hon. Member at any of those meetings. It is only today that he takes the opportunity to raise these points.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

That is not true. I have been on numerous calls, and I have regular conversations with the South Yorkshire passenger transport authority and the hon. Gentleman’s offices and officers about a whole range of transport issues.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Labour, Barnsley Central

I hope the hon. Gentleman has clocked that the South Yorkshire passenger transport executive is being subsumed into the mayoral combined authority, and what we are waiting for is Government time so that the order can go through this place to complete that process. That is something I decided was in our interests as a region, to allow for more effective and more accountable decision making.

I am conscious of time, so I will move on. However, given that we are rightly focusing on the importance of investment, I will just make the point that our plight was not helped—to say the least—by the fact that the £50 million levelling-up fund that the MCA put forward, which would have drawn down vital resource to invest in our bus network, was rejected. Again, that was a good, detailed, ambitious proposal that we put forward to the Government as part of—

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Labour, Barnsley Central

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. I look forward to hearing his detailed critique of why that £50 million bid that was put forward to Government was rejected. I am happy to give way, if he wants to offer a critique of what was wrong with that bid—was that not ambitious enough?

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

I find the hon. Member’s argument quite astounding. On the one hand, the South Yorkshire mayoralty failed to get one pot of money; it has now failed to get another pot of money. Surely, this is just a failure of leadership. If it keeps getting things wrong, it is not a problem with the process but a problem with how the bid has been written. Surely, it undermines his argument completely—if it is not getting any of the bids right, it needs to review how they do bids.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Labour, Barnsley Central

Honestly, the hon. Gentleman’s approach is somewhat blinkered. Even if it is not today in this place and in this debate, he needs to have conversations with Ministers. If this Government seek to be serious about the levelling-up agenda and unlocking the potential of South Yorkshire, they will have to do much better than just saying that our bids were not ambitious enough. That is not the case. I give the House absolute assurance that the bids put forward would be independently assessed as very high quality. We have been here before with freeports, where the Government’s own analysis showed that our bid was better than some of the successful bids. Let’s keep this real.

Our concerns about investment in public transport extend way beyond buses. The Minister is an expert on Northern Powerhouse Rail and HS2, which I know is the favourite subject of the hon. Member for Rother Valley, so I will not get into all that detail. I have a lot of time for the Minister, so it would be remiss of me not to say—I am afraid this undermines the hon. Gentleman’s argument—that we have been successful in some areas. The same team of people who put forward the bid for the city region sustainable transport settlement, who worked with the same local authorities and closely with the Minister’s Department, successfully secured £570 million. Why was that bid successful and others were not? It is not clear to me. To be fair to the Minister, the same team of people put forward a successful bid for zero emission buses regional area funding for our electrical bus fleet.

The problem for the hon. Member for Rother Valley—whether he is prepared to admit to us or to himself is unclear—is that the resources made available by Government are inadequate for the transformation that the Government want. I support the levelling-up agenda, but the truth of the matter is that the potential of the north and places such as South Yorkshire will be unlocked only with serious long-term investment. The Government need to provide a step change in funding for revenue and not just of capital spending, to give it everywhere, not just where it is politically convenient and suits the Government, and to allocate the majority in a way that we can count on, plan for and control.

The hon. Member talks about a strategic approach; it is entirely impossible, as I believe the Secretary of State for Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities would acknowledge, to be strategic because we have no certainty whatsoever about our funding streams. The funding needs to be much more certain than it has been, genuinely transformative and genuinely devolved. I am sad to say that it is impossible for me to conclude that the Government are serious about the process, which is a terrible shame, because without it we will not unlock the huge potential of areas such as ours. People not just in South Yorkshire but right around the country deserve much better.

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee 5:28 pm, 27th April 2022

It is always a pleasure to serve with you in the chair, Mr Hosie.

Constituents have raised with me time and again the desperately poor standard of public transport links in South Yorkshire. For the majority of Rotherham constituents, public transport means buses. In early 2020 I conducted an extensive survey to gather a clear picture of bus services in Rotherham and the day-to-day frustrations that my constituents face just trying to get around. Suffice to say, the results were damning: 80% of respondents stated that their bus was usually late, 85% said the service did not offer value for money and a staggering 91% condemned services as unreliable.

The survey was conducted just prior to the pandemic, and in the subsequent two years the service has got remarkably worse. Getting to work, the shops or home in the evening should not be such a challenge, but for many in South Yorkshire, public transport is simply not a viable option. If we are serious about encouraging people out of their cars, sustained investment in a reliable, efficient and cost-effective bus network is vital. Instead, we are left with failing bus companies, poor reliability, a lack of interconnectivity, slow services and really high fares.

In South Yorkshire passenger transport executive, we have a body that has neither the funding nor the power to drive up standards. I agree that an alternative model for the delivery of public transport in our region is long overdue. Poor public transport links are holding us back, but the reality is that without the funding to drive up standards, I cannot see structural change alone delivering the improvements for people in Rotherham. That is why it is so bitterly disappointing to see the Conservative Government rejecting South Yorkshire’s detailed and ambitious bid for funding to transform our bus networks.

I would like to personally pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and, indeed, the four local authorities and their staff, for working tirelessly to put the bid forward. The outgoing Mayor of South Yorkshire, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central, has worked relentlessly to make the case for investment to the Government. I share his profound disappointment that, instead of delivering for our constituents, South Yorkshire has, as he put it, “been shafted”.

Sadly, this was all too predictable. The Government talk about levelling up; they talk about investment, and the Prime Minister talks about “a bonanza for buses”, but that is it—just talk. When it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, delivering on promises and proving that levelling up is anything more than a buzzword, the result is always the same: zero. My constituents are not interested in arguments about regulators or transport authorities; they want a bus service that is fit for purpose. Instead, this Government have made it clear that, when it comes to the desperately needed funding to make that bus service a reality, South Yorkshire is, once again, back of the queue.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee 5:31 pm, 27th April 2022

I will be very brief, Mr Hosie; I thank you for allowing me to contribute briefly.

I support what my hon. Friends have just said. First of all, in a cross-party way, I absolutely support franchising. I was critical of the Labour Government in the noughties, when I thought they should have moved faster on that. The Local Transport Act 2008 was not sufficient to give authorities the real powers they needed, and the current transport legislation is an improvement. It gives the powers to mayoral combined authorities—although I think it ought to also give powers to other transport authorities—but the problem is that it is no use giving authorities Transport for London powers without Transport for London money. It just will not work.

Franchising can help, and taking buses back into public control was clearly supported by the people we consulted as part of the bus review. However, it does not, of itself, improve the service. It can do a little bit, in moving the resources around into a more efficient and effective way—by moving some buses from oversubscribed routes to routes that do not exist at all, in some cases, because they have been removed completely. However, in the end, with companies such as First Bus in Sheffield, which loses money, there is no way to manoeuvre the routes to get better services from companies that are losing money without putting extra money in.

That is the fundamental issue. If we are to do anything more with franchising, other than having a different way of organising the buses, and to have a way of improving bus services, then it requires extra money from Government; and I do believe that if money is put in, it should be put under the transport authority’s control. I therefore ask Alexander Stafford to lobby his Ministers.

If we are to deliver the sort of bus services that we want, with a service where the public are in control of their own public services, through franchising, we need that extra resource from Government. It is as simple as that. Without it, there will be failure, and a lot of upset and discontent among our constituents.

Photo of Gill Furniss Gill Furniss Shadow Minister (Transport) 5:34 pm, 27th April 2022

It is a pleasure, yet again, to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Hosie. I thank Alexander Stafford for securing this important debate. Improving our local transport links is incredibly important to me, not only as shadow Transport Minister but as a Member of Parliament representing a constituency in South Yorkshire.

I also thank other Members for their contributions. In particular, I thank my hon. Friend Dan Jarvis for his unique insight, given his role as Mayor of the region. In the face of lacklustre central Government support, he has delivered on local priorities, as he outlined in his speech. That includes an investment of £87 million in active travel by 2023, £100 million for our trams and millions for bus concessions to make affordable for young people.

Concerning governance, the mayoral combined authority already has a strategic role in transport policy. The reality is that more powers are not enough without the proper funding to back them up, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend Mr Betts made that point eloquently. Time and again, our critical public transport services have been left to wither way under this Government. The hon. Member for Rother Valley must recognise that this Government have been in power for 12 years now, and this is where we are.

Post-pandemic, our public transport links should be driving our economic recovery, but instead timetables are failing to return to their pre-pandemic levels and the Government have been asleep at the wheel. Bus coverage is at its lowest level in decades and our communities have been left behind.

At a regional level, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East recently conducted a review of bus services in South Yorkshire for the Mayor. His findings presented a series of challenges facing public transport services. He identified that bus miles in South Yorkshire fell by an average of 12% between 2010 and 2017 alone. He also highlighted issues of reliability, with over 60% of respondents saying that they were dissatisfied with services in the region. Passengers are therefore forced to take cars and taxis, modes of transport that are more expensive and worse for our planet.

The mayoral combined authority has taken bold steps to improve transport links. Its transport strategy sets out a comprehensive plan to connect our major urban and economic growth centres, and promotes our rural and visitor economies. Despite this Government’s rhetoric, they are failing to step up to these challenges. The national bus strategy is simply more hot air, and yet another missed opportunity to support our transport links.

Between 2009 and 2020, Government spending on public transport across the UK was cut by £1.5 billion. The Prime Minister said that £3 billion would be made available to

“level up buses…towards London standards.”

The funding has been slashed to less than half of that original figure for the next three years. Furthermore, Transport for the North is set to lose 40% of its core funding in the next financial year. This will undoubtedly have an impact on services and passenger experiences. This is not levelling up but holding back our communities at a time when we should be unleashing their full potential.

I once again thank all Members who have contributed to this debate. I hope it feeds into the wider discussion on the future of our transport networks in South Yorkshire. Labour in power is delivering for our public transport. The South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority keeps investing in these vital links, but that is not being backed up by the funding they need from central Government. The reality is that while the Government are too mired in scandal to tackle these important issues, Labour offers a clear alternative.

Labour would invest in the infrastructure our communities depend on as part of our contract with the British people. I conclude by quoting my hon. Friend Sarah Champion, who said that people out there just want a reliable bus service.

Photo of Andrew Stephenson Andrew Stephenson Assistant Whip, Minister of State (Department for Transport) 5:38 pm, 27th April 2022

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend Alexander Stafford on securing this important debate, and I thank the hon. Members for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) for their contributions.

Efficient, integrated and sustainable local transport is a key priority for my Department, not just for South Yorkshire but for the entire north of England and, indeed, the whole of the country. The Government are wholeheartedly committed to delivering on their vision to level up all areas of the country, not least South Yorkshire, ensuring that we have a transport network that serves all communities. That is why my Department, led by the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who is also the Cabinet Minister responsible for the northern powerhouse, is at the forefront of making this vision a reality.

On the potential merits of a public transport authority for South Yorkshire, while that has been covered by a number of speakers, it might be helpful if I briefly outline the current state of affairs. Strategic responsibility and political accountability for local transport within South Yorkshire lies with the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority. The MCA works in close partnership with the South Yorkshire passenger transport executive, which has operational responsibility for delivering against the MCA’s priorities.

In 2019, the Mayor of South Yorkshire, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, commissioned the South Yorkshire bus review, chaired by Mr Betts. Published in 2020, a key recommendation of the report was to provide the Mayor of the MCA with greater control over the planning of bus timetables and to increase accountability with a single local leadership of bus service provision. The report therefore recommended the merger of the South Yorkshire passenger transport executive into the combined authority, an ambition that my Department supports fully. The Government have committed to exploring a practical timetable to bring forward the merger with appropriate legislation.

The decision to merge the combined authority and the passenger transport executive was made and adopted by the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority and its constituent local authorities. They are taking the practical steps to merge the two organisations, but that also requires legislation, which the Government will introduce. That will bring all the powers of the PTE, the combined authority and the Mayor together, which they can use to deliver transformative change for South Yorkshire.

In the meantime, my Department is working hard to ensure that all communities in South Yorkshire have access to first-rate transport infrastructure, whether in the larger conurbations of Sheffield and Rotherham, or in the smaller but no less important corners of Dinnington, Maltby and many other villages and hamlets. Since 2010, we have invested more than £33 billion in transport infrastructure in the north of England. We all accept, however, that we have much more to do and much further to go with investment. Levelling up all parts of the country is at the centre of the Government’s agenda, and our levelling-up White Paper committed us to improving public transport networks outside the capital closer to the standards of London by 2030.

We have already made significant progress. More than 60% of the north is now covered by mayoral combined authorities, offering a strong voice for communities and new opportunities for investment in those places. In addition, the Government announced the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund. Projects from the first round of that fund are already under way to improve connectivity and to restore pride in our local areas. My Department is looking forward to receiving bids in the second round. I encourage all Members to engage with their local authorities on how they can provide priority support to those transformative schemes being bid for.

As a mayoral combined authority, South Yorkshire will receive £570 million from the city region sustainable transport settlements programme. The CRSTS represents an unprecedented investment in South Yorkshire’s local transport network. Among proposals such as the renewal of the Sheffield Supertram, CRSTS will deliver improved bus priority measures to create a seamless, integrated public transport experience for all passengers across the region.

The Government recognise the importance of buses to all communities across our country. From big cities to rural villages, buses are essential for many people to access jobs, leisure and essential services, and to see loved ones. That is why we supported vital bus services across Yorkshire and the Humber with the bus recovery grant throughout the pandemic—to the tune of £12 million—and we continue to support services with a pledge of a further £150 million nationally in the final tranche of funding to October 2022.

Last year, to strengthen our bus services in the long term, we published the landmark national bus strategy, an ambitious plan setting out how we can ensure that the market works effectively with the public sector to deliver transformational bus improvement across our country. To meet the requirements of the strategy, all local transport authorities must either implement a statutory enhanced partnership or pursue a franchising assessment.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley for sharing his views on the importance of bus franchising, which I know he cares deeply about and has campaigned on extensively since his election. My understanding is that South Yorkshire is currently pursuing the enhanced partnership option, but all mayoral combined authorities, including South Yorkshire, have access to franchising powers that enable them to implement a bus franchise, following assessment and consultation, should they wish to pursue that approach.

Under the national bus strategy, every local transport authority in England outside London was asked to produce a bus service improvement plan; the BSIP has been the focus of several hon. Members’ contributions today. This month, we announced that 31 counties, city regions and unitary authorities had been chosen for indicative funding to implement their BSIPs and level up local bus services. As is often the case in any funding process, the ask for BSIP funding exceeded the funding available; I do not wish to comment on speculations about why certain bids were approved and certain bids were not. Although South Yorkshire was one of the areas that did not receive an indicative BSIP funding allocation on this occasion, the Department has written to the MCA to outline the practical support that we are making available. That will ensure that it has the right resources to help to deliver the critical bus priority measures that its CRSTS investment will fund.

We will continue to work with South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority to support the delivery of its enhanced partnership. Other funding streams such as round 2 of the levelling-up fund, for which applications close on 6 July, can also support investment in the priorities that have been identified in the BSIP bids.

In addition to BSIP, my Department is supporting bus networks across the country through other funding avenues. As has been mentioned, we announced last month the outcome of the second round of the ZEBRA—zero-emission bus regional areas—scheme, which is part of the £525 million that is being invested in zero-emission buses over this Parliament. I was pleased to see that South Yorkshire received more than £8 million of ZEBRA funding, supporting the introduction of 27 zero-emission buses, supporting infrastructure and demonstrating our commitment to level up the local transport network in South Yorkshire while reducing our impact on the environment.

It is important to emphasise that our focus is not just on buses. The Government are making the largest investment in rail infrastructure in this country through the integrated rail plan, a £96 billion plan to transform the network in the north and the midlands—an issue on which my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley and I do not always see eye to eye. We will continue to invest in services across the country.

My fundamental point is that the Government are clear that our mission is to level up and deliver world-class local transport networks, and we want to work with local communities across the country to do so. My Department is working closely with partners in South Yorkshire to deliver that vital objective in the region. I can confirm that the Government will seek to bring forward appropriate legislation in due course to allow for the creation of a single public transport authority for South Yorkshire to help to realise that vision.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley 5:47 pm, 27th April 2022

May I thank everyone for such a lively debate? We may not all agree about the solutions, but at least we all care about our region. Before I sum up the arguments, I put on record my thanks to Dan Jarvis. We may disagree profoundly about a lot of things that go on in South Yorkshire, but I know that he cares passionately about the region. I thank him for his service over the past four years.

We have had some very interesting speeches. My neighbour, Sarah Champion, is right that services have got worse and that change is long overdue. We all agree on that; we may disagree on the funding models, the ambition or whatever, but at least we are all coming from the starting point that things need to get better. No one is sitting around arguing that the service is good. It is woeful.

I really enjoyed the speech of Mr Betts. I am glad that he supports franchising, because I am a very big supporter. He raised an interesting point: I think he said that there is no point in giving powers without any additional money. Actually, I would argue the opposite, because we need to show what we would do with the powers before we get the money and put the plan in place—it is a chicken and egg situation. However, I think that overall the hon. Gentleman and I are looking from the same perspective.

The hon. Member for Barnsley Central made an impassioned speech about what he has done as Mayor in the past few years. Dare I say that perhaps there was a bit too much focus on the failed bids? It would be nice to see what the future holds as well. One point that I would like to pick up is that he called it a political decision of this Government not to give money in the last round. I say that it cannot have been a red/blue political decision: the Labour-controlled authorities of West Yorkshire and Manchester got funding, while blue areas such as North Somerset did not, so I just cannot accept that point. There has to be another solution.

The Minister made a very interesting point about funding. The Government have given £570 million for transport in our region, so we need to use the money wisely.

I hope that all hon. Members present will take forward the arguments, put aside our political differences and look towards what we all want: a bold, ambitious programme for South Yorkshire. We all agree that our transport, our buses and our connectivity need to get better. Whoever is Mayor in 10 days or so, I hope that they will take that point to heart when they listen to this debate or read it in Hansard, so that we can all get together and try to achieve that ambition. We in South Yorkshire deserve a system akin to Manchester’s or London’s. We should not be left behind, but our transport is woefully left behind.

Thank you, Mr Hosie, for your chairmanship today.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the potential merits of a public transport authority for South Yorkshire.

Sitting adjourned.