'Out of touch' mayor under pressure over free transport schemes in South Yorkshire

Sheffield City Region mayor Dan Jarvis is being urged to swallow his pride and reinstate two free public transport services to help the elderly, save the environment and boost the economy.

Friday, 14th May 2021, 4:29 pm

Free train travel for pensioners and the FreeBee bus in Sheffield city centre were axed by a Labour-dominated transport committee seven years ago.

But since then campaigners say there has been a big shift in attitudes to active travel, emissions and car use.

Big gains in last week’s local elections by opposition parties - who favour the return of both services - underline voters’ new priorities, it is claimed.

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South Yorkshire Freedom Riders rally outside Sheffield railway station.

And there is no shame in reversing a decision if circumstances change, according to Mike Smith, of South Yorkshire Freedom Riders, who want the train pass back.

He claims Mr Jarvis is digging in to avoid Labour ‘losing face’. But it means South Yorkshire is the only place in England without such a concession, curtailing the lives of an estimated 250,000 pensioners.

He added: “This has badly affected so many peoples’ lives at a time when the emphasis is on older people remaining active.”

The original scheme cost just £329,000-a-year, he added. And a similar project in the North East with £12-a-year charge was ‘cost neutral’ and self financing.

Dan Jarvis, Barnsley MP and Sheffield City Region mayor.

He added: “The mayor has the ability to raise money through a precept but he has chosen not to use it. It’s all down to political will.

“I think if campaigners win, people like Dan Jarvis see it as damaging their authority. He needs to swallow his pride.”

Mr Jarvis is a Labour MP in Barnsley and part-time city region mayor.

Last week, Labour lost councillors across South Yorkshire, including eight in Sheffield, leaving the city with no overall control.

Sheffield Greens leader, Coun Douglas Johnson. Picture: Chris Etchells

Power sharing discussions are taking place. But whatever emerges, the Lib Dems and Greens expect to play a bigger role in governance.

And both support the free train pass and the return of the FreeBee.

They agree that electric buses on a 10-minute cycle around Sheffield city centre would help compensate for the closure of Pinstone Street.

The traffic ban last June, to allow social distancing, saw 27 bus services moved up to 15 minutes’ walk away, sparking protests from passengers, wheelchair users and businesses.

Coun Bryan Lodge launches the new FreeBee service in October 2007.

Patricia Eaton, of Arbourthorne Road, Arbourthorne wrote: ‘I have walking problems. Our bus stopped at the bottom of Fargate but to get home the nearest is at the back of Debenhams. We want our buses back!’

And David Tipper urged Labour’s new leader in Sheffield, Coun Terry Fox, to back The Star in calling for the return of the FreeBee.

He added: ‘Serious consideration needs to be given to the elderly and wheelchair-bound…Have you tried pushing a wheelchair up Norfolk Street?’

The original FreeBee was funded by South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive until it was axed in 2014. SYPTE is now part of the mayoral authority under Mr Jarvis.

Coun Shaffaq Mohammed, Lib Dem leader in Sheffield, said the mayor risked being seen as “out of touch, left behind and slow” on the environment and public transport ahead of his re-election race next year.

He added: “Dan Jarvis has a lot more money than a few years ago. Coming out of lockdown we want pensioners to get out and about.

Mike Smith, of South Yorkshire Freedom Riders.

“Labour doesn’t have all the answers and Mr Jarvis needs to heed the warning signs.

“With the increasing influence of the Lib Dems and Greens, public transport and the environment are likely to feature much more in local government debate.”

Douglas Johnson, leader of Sheffield Greens, said free train travel for pensioners was ‘a very good use of public money’ that outweighed the cost by boosting activity, health and spending in the local economy, saving the environment and reducing demand on the NHS.

He added: “There are always going to be difficult spending decisions. But following the elections we hope a lot of things we promote will be bumped up the agenda.

“The FreeBee is a good campaign. It resonates with the public and would solve some problems in the city centre.”

Labour MP Clive Betts led a bus review for the mayor and said he ‘instinctively supported’ a FreeBee.

He added: “Labour’s credentials on the environment are just as beneficial as anything the other parties offer. But we are realistic about costs. The opposition does this all the time - call for things without considering the impact on funding.

“Dan Jarvis has been very clear he wants to improve bus services but needs government to pay its fair share.”

Bus spending per head in Sheffield was £5 annually, compared to £70 in London, he added.

A spokeswoman for Mr Jarvis said reinstating any concession would be a policy issue for the Mayoral Combined Authority, not a purely mayoral decision. Informal discussions with Nexus, which runs public transport in the North East, had taken place to understand how their scheme operates, she added.

But Mr Jarvis would not be introducing a mayoral precept to avoid adding to the ‘massive financial strain’ on people in South Yorkshire.

She added: “The Mayor’s office has been in contact with Mr Smith to respond to his enquiries and concerns so it is not correct to say the Mayor has not been dealing with legitimate requests.”

And on the FreeBee: “We are currently waiting for confirmation from Government about the level of funding going forward which will play a part in determining the region’s bus network for the coming months, including any potential options regarding this service.

“One of Mayor Jarvis’s key priorities is creating a greener South Yorkshire and he is committed to building a transport system fit for the 21st century. He will work with elected members across South Yorkshire to invest in people, places and businesses.

“The MCA set a target for net zero carbon emissions by 2040, ten years before the Government’s national target, when it declared a Climate Emergency in November 2019. This target remains unchanged.”

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Thank you. Nancy Fielder, editor.

South Yorkshire Freedom Riders' rally.
Coun Shaffaq Mohammed, Sheffield Lib Dem leader. Picture: Chris Etchells
Clive Betts, MP for Sheffield South East.