Letter: Free buses are becoming an essential tool in the fight against climate change

Sheffield busesSheffield buses
Sheffield buses
This letter sent to the Star was written by Mike Smith, Park Grove, S70

Nancy Fielder’s editorial highlights again the scandalous behaviour of our politicians at all levels, burying their heads in the sand when it comes to the drastic action required to get our public transport both public and able to provide transport for all.

When I started the local campaign for free bus travel The Star generously gave much space to developing the argument with two transport experts from Sheffield University supporting the feasibility of having free bus services. It’s not only essential for the environment but also for the car users that we have an expanding bus service BEFORE charges are imposed as they have in London.

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Why is a viable alternative so hard for the Mayor and councillors to understand and work for? What are their objections? The situations are so serious that actions, drastic or rapid or however done, are essential today. Not tomorrow, not months or years down the road but today. And take the people with you.

We aren’t the enemy as some believe and behave. You’re here to serve us, from the council officers, to the councillors to the MPs and the Mayor. And I believe the majority want what we had nearly 50 years ago.

Can I offer the following to help the Mayor and his transport committee as he’s clearly out of his depth on what to do about buses! A little history first, given he’s a member of the party which introduced the cheap to free fares policy.

In 1974 all bus fares in South Yorkshire were fixed at 10p adult and 2p child. Anywhere in South Yorkshire. By 1978 it was costing more to collect the fares than the money amounted to. The roads were relatively free of traffic and the buses were well used.

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Studies showed that traffic jams and pollution levels were far lower than today. Routes were speeded up as the fare structure was very simple.

The idea was to make the buses zero fares by 1984, paid for by a precept on the rates and no longer shackled by the cost of collecting fares. It was the first Universal Basic Service since the post-war NHS was set up.

1979 saw fares forced up by 400 per cent which began the decline. Had the fares just increased with inflation adult fares would be about 48p a journey. In the process we lost 60 per cent of routes and 60 per cent of passengers as few could rely on them. Full deregulation accelerated the process.

At first Stagecoach was offering free buses in certain areas but once the opposition had gone fares began again.

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But across the world free buses are becoming an essential tool in the fight against climate change. Tallin and Dunkirk are the easiest to read about. They bring economic benefits as they release money to spend locally. They reduce car use and free the roads up to make cycling and walking safer. They reduce pollution.

Meanwhile, in this country and in a county that can justifiably be called a pioneer of public transport, billions are wasted providing private companies and a myriad of management with an income and a service beyond satire. Even in London the cost of franchising – keeping the private sector involved – is in the hundreds of millions.

The idea that Greater Manchester is going to produce a transport revolution without the massive subsidies TfL has is pie in the sky. Or even South Yorkshire where the part-time MP and part-time Mayor Dan Jarvis hasn’t the gumption to look back at the proud history of the area and bring some pride back.

Just for once why don’t the Labour Mayors across the North look at what works, what saves money, what improves lives and get on their feet and argue for and demand it!

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A one per cent rise in income tax would raise £7 billion, more than enough to make all current bus fares zero fares and start to rebuild the publicly owned transport fleet and replace the 60 per cent lost routes.

For the average tax payer that’s about £80 a year. Many people who rely on buses spend between £800 and £1,200 a year on fares.

Even the most market-driven politician might begin to realise we are being had.

Pay a bit more tax and keep more of your money instead of handing millions to managers and off-shore tax avoiders.

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The minimum fare of £1.55 so favoured by Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan will still cost you at least £372 a year. £80 a year extra tax will still save you nearly £300 a year.

Outside of London you’re looking at an effective non-inflationary pay rise of between £700 and £1,100 a year. Or more.

Ever got the feeling your being had? Private bus companies have one motive: making profit, rather than catering to the needs of their users. Between 2003 and 2013, £2.8bn ended up as dividend payments in the bank balances of shareholders, rather than invested in improving bus services.

About 40p in every pound of their total revenues comes directly from the taxpayer: yet another example of Britain’s publicly subsidised “free market” economy.

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And if you have a bus service you can rely on you you can get rid of your car and save at least another £5,000 a year. Big shop? Bus in, taxi home.

We can help clean up the planet, open up our towns and cities, reclaim our streets, save local economies, get fitter and healthier, stop breathing particulates and polluted air. If we want to.

But we need leadership and an understanding of the issues involved right across the board. And that’s the biggest problem of all.

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