Organised by The Star, Doncaster Free Press and the Local Democracy Reporting Service, four aspiring mayors answered questions on a range of issues in front of students at Sheffield College which was streamed live to the South Yorkshire public.
Overhauling the bus network and public transport more widely will be a main policy area for the next mayor to tackle and candidates were asked how they would work alongside operators and how they would secure short term improvements.
All candidates back public control but both Coppard and Otten said there was ‘real risk’ of further cuts if patronage doesn’t increase and Covid-19 subsidies end. The Labour candidate went further and said the region could potentially lose up to ‘one third’ of the network in a worst case scenario.
Simon Biltcliffe from the Yorkshire Party, like many of the candidates, wants public control of the network and work towards a bus franchising system – making decisions on where buses go, setting fares and better serving communities sparse of a proper bus service.
“If you speak to the bus operators, the system is not working for them either.
“If you’re looking for a short term time window of one year, then you work consensually to understand the operators’ business and their opportunities that they can do to improve on how they can be innovative in lower cost ways of getting more people on buses.
“Operators want to make them more effective, they’re not the enemy, they’re part of the solution as well.”
Otten of the Liberal Democrats said he wants to take control so investment in the network has the best chance of pay off. But he issued a stark warning in the short-term future of the network if the government stops Covid-19 subsidies before patronage increases.
“Stagecoach has issues with franchising but I listened to a guy from First the other day and he said that this comes with a health warning if we want to control the buses and we’d be taking on a load of risk – I want control but that assessment is perfectly true,” he said.
“In the short term, that risk is magnified because the Covid-19 subsidy is coming to an end and there is every danger that if passenger numbers don’t pick up then we won’t be able to sustain the network we already have.
“That’s the worry and it should worry all of us. We can still talk about our plans for a better bus network but if patronage doesn’t pick up then we’ll be talking about how we can hold onto the network we have.”
Coppard from Labour added: “I want to do politics differently and that means telling people the truth.
“I would love to say I’d fix the buses in six months … but it’s simply not true.
“The bus services across South Yorkshire right now are not fit for purpose. They’ve been getting worse since privatisation in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher decided to stop the system we had here where you could go anywhere for two pence.
“Joe is right about subsidies coming to an end in September and if that happens, we could potentially lose a third of our network.
“In the short term, you can make sure bus lanes work better, we want zero tolerance of harassment of bus staff but outside of those things, you’re tinkering around the edges.
“To fundamentally change how the buses work in South Yorkshire is public control. People then can decide where they go based on need not profit for the bus companies.”
Bettney from the SDP, added there are ‘no short term solutions’ and a forensic look was needed at the business model to initially see how services can be run better for the same money.
He also backs the idea of public control for the network.
“You can’t plan a business to say you would quickly fix things in six months. It would probably take the full term of four years to slowly move away from the current model for it to be owned by the public.
“We always talk about how we need more money for a lot of areas in society but we are skint as a country – borrowing £50bn every year – we say we need more money but where is the money coming from?
“You could strip it back as a business, have a proper look and find we could be using it more efficiently than we’re already spending on it. You might have to be honest with people and say you borrow more money, put on taxes but my view is we generate our own money.”
Candidates were asked why people should go out and vote for them on May 5.
Mr Otten of the Lib Dems said: “I really think it’s important that Labour doesn’t take South Yorkshire for granted – I admit that Oliver is probably the favourite to win.
“It’s up to the rest of us to put up a challenge for something different. But if the same party runs your local government, your city region, year after year then if you keep voting them in, you’’ get the same results.
“The Liberal Democrats have got a strong record – when we ran Sheffield we did a really good job and we could come back and do it again.”
Mr Bettney of the SDP, added: “The Brexit Party has backed out and backed me in this race because they looked at my CV… and said they put people before the party.
“I grew up on a council estate so I know what it’s like to set off with nothing and through the advantages and experience of going through the Army I ended up in the Middle East and grew a range of companies.
“All of those business skills I developed, I want to bring to South Yorkshire or whether it’s getting young lads motivated and getting them off the streets and buying into our vision – I can do that as well as cutting the mustard in the boardroom.”
Mr Biltcliffe from the Yorkshire Party, said: “We’ve got a real opportunity to make a step forward. Not only are we on the cusp of a green revolution which we need to embrace, we need to use the talent that we’ve got to keep them here.
“As a person, I’ve got the ability to deliver an exceptional future for South Yorkshire and as a party, we’ve got a strong devolution approach and don’t forget, I’m giving all my money to charity.”
Mr Coppard from Labour added: “You have the responsibility in voting to help shape our future and we have the opportunity to make sure South Yorkshire is not just at the forefront of the industrial revolution but in the cultural and creative industries in making our economy strong, fairer and greener.
“This is what I would do if you elect me as mayor on May 5.”
Other candidates on the ballot paper are:
Clive Watkinson, Conservatives
Bex Whyman, Green Party