It’s Time to Take South Yorkshire’s Buses Into Public Ownership

This year's election for South Yorkshire mayor could be a referendum on bringing its buses and trams into public ownership – and reversing the devastation privatisation has wrought.

Private bus companies have prioritised profits over services, cutting routes and failing to invest in new, cleaner infrastructure—all while being subsidised at the public’s expense.(Getty Images)

Since the last election for Mayor, the political geography of South Yorkshire has changed dramatically. Labour seats like Penistone and Stocksbridge, Rother Valley and Don Valley have fallen to the Tories, and many of our historic strongholds stand on the precipice.

It would be a mistake to assume that 2019 was a one-off. After Thatcherism tore the heart from our communities and—in the case of Orgreave and elsewhere during the ‘84/85 miners’ strike—beat down anyone who resisted, decades of subsequent underinvestment held them back. The Labour vote crumbled as people moved to the cities for work and those who remained stopped believing anyone in politics cared about them. An anti-establishment, insurgent Tory campaign led by a pseudo-maverick, Johnson, turned erosion into collapse—a wrecking ball given force by the anger of people who felt that politicians are all the same.

The recent result in Hartlepool shows that those challenges haven’t dissipated—and the Tory government’s strategy of divide and rule has the potential to exacerbate them. While policies like the great ‘Rail Betrayal’ continue to sell out the North, Tory ministers are resorting to pork-barrel politics, diverting money to key marginals to give their candidates good news stories come the next general election.

To win back those who feel taken for granted and who are being actively courted by our opponents, we need to change our approach. Rather than simply acknowledging issues without offering serious solutions, or telling voters that we’ll go cap in hand to the government to ask for more funding, we need to prove the difference a Labour mayor will make—offering concrete solutions to the challenges people face and demonstrating how we’ll return wealth and power to our communities.

One of the mayor’s main responsibilities is for public transport. That’s why I want to make the election a referendum on bringing our buses and trams into public ownership. Talk to anyone in South Yorkshire and they’ll tell you our transport system is fragmented, unreliable, and far too expensive—and that they’d not even consider walking or cycling on our congested and polluted roads.

The private bus companies have prioritised profits over services, cutting routes and failing to invest in new, cleaner infrastructure—all while being subsidised at the public’s expense. Privatisation has pushed the system into crisis.

Bringing the buses into a measure of public control, through London-style franchising, is one way to begin to address the issue. But that should be the start of the conversation, not the end. To get to the root of the problem, rather than subsidise profits, we should socialise them and reinvest in the system to fix it—restoring routes, increasing the frequency and reliability of services, and upgrading our bus and tram stock so that they’re fit for the twenty-first century.

The only way to ensure services are run for people, not profit, is to create a publicly owned bus company. To guarantee that people come first, I’ll put workers and passengers on the board, using their expertise and experience to make key decisions about how services are run.

By taking the bus and tram system into public ownership, I’ll put the Green New Deal into practice—fuelling a modal shift from car use and helping to transition our local economy to net-zero as we put workers and passengers at the heart of that change. We can also use the new public company to stimulate the creation of unionised jobs and green industry by buying from local engineering and manufacturing firms innovating in new green technologies. As a skills commissioner, I’ll also ensure that all workers, young or old, are able to train for that green industrial revolution.

These values of democratic, green municipal socialism will be at the heart of every decision I make as mayor. As we fix the transport system, we’ll increase access to education and health services, while we open up job opportunities for people across the region. Firms receiving money from the mayoral authority will need to recognise a trade union, pay a real living wage, and use environmentally sustainable practices.

I’ll also give communities the power to invest in their neighbourhoods by issuing a Green New Deal bond—community shares that will empower people to invest in green projects such as nature renewal and restoring natural carbon sinks and flood defences such as peatlands, woodlands, and urban green spaces. The result will build wealth in our communities and trigger an environmental, democratic transformation of our region.

That’s the kind of bold and inspiring vision we need to take the fight to the Tories—an offer that uncompromisingly addresses the problems people face by building wealth and power in our communities, and proving what a difference Labour can make. To fight for that vision, we need a movement that sees election day as the first step in the transformation of our region. Building it starts now, with this selection—join the campaign and, together, we’ll fight for a Green New Deal for South Yorkshire.