SYPTE: Clean up your act

Last year South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive (SYPTE), an enormous power-crazed quango formed of Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield councils, announced it needed to save £8million from its annual budget. As part of this, an all too brief consultation was instigated with the aim of cutting the Sheffield bus network by about 10%. As is usually the case with local authority consultations, the original plans were rubber stamped almost without change as reported in the Sheffield Star on 2 September 2015:

“Transport chiefs have agreed proposals to remove, replace, reduce and renumber buses across Sheffield despite last-ditch protests this afternoon.

“Campaigners demonstrated outside the meeting in Barnsley while inside protesters highlighted how the changes would hit people travelling to work or for hospital appointments.

“Martin Mayer, secretary of Sheffield Trade Union Council, asked councillors if they wanted to ‘take the political responsibility for the biggest ever cut on a single day to Sheffield buses’ – which he said amounted to at least a 10 per cent cut.

“Sheffield Bus Partnership claims the proposals will improve the city-wide bus network, reduce duplication and pollution, and make it more efficient.

“The plans were revised after thousands of people raised concerns during a heavily criticised public consultation.

“The cuts and changes will now come into force from the weekend starting October 31 after the plans were agreed.

“Plans were revised after thousands of people took part in consultation, with nine separate petitions against the changes submitted.

“But it was said at the meeting of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority transport committee that the amended plans would still have an impact on passengers, with several people speaking at the meeting and others protesting outside.

“Geraldine O’Connor, speaking as a disabled Sheffield resident, said she only found out about the consultation in July on the day it ended. She told councillors: ‘If your plans go ahead I might not be able to get to a job.’

“She claimed there was potential for a judicial review because disabled people would not be able to access ‘essential services such as the Hallamshire Hospital’ via the number 70.

“Graves Park Councillor Ian Auckland, who sits on the committee, said it was a ‘shrinking’ bus network. He added: ‘All the evidence is that shrinking networks lead to fewer passengers which leads to higher fares and so on – the only people who will benefit from that are the bus operators.’

“The changes were agreed as part of an interlinked package of measures under a devolution deal for the Sheffield region.

“David Young, from the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, said a ‘very good number of changes’ had been made to original plans as a result of consultation and as almost 2,500 people had taken part the ‘message has got out.’

“He said people travelling to hospital via the 70 would be able to change buses without having to walk.  Mr Young added: ‘There’s a lot of discussion about it all being bad news and cuts – there are increased services in some cases. These are all based on the actual patronage data, use it or lose it is very much a cliche but if customers are not using the services it is not sustainable to keep them running.’

“He said that most passengers’ concerns had been addressed by the revised proposals and some services had seen positive changes.

“The meeting also heard that it was estimated there would be ‘30 less job opportunities’ for people as a result of the changes, but no compulsory redundancies.”

And in the Sheffield Star just a week after the cuts…

“Sheffield Bus Partnership claimed the changes – which were revised after a public outcry – would improve the network and be more efficient.

“But Ann Suckley, of Ecclesfield, said it was now a battle to get to work at Meadowhall shopping centre, one of Sheffield’s biggest employers.  She said: ‘I now have to walk further which is fine but the 35 buses have gone to one an hour. The bus misses half the time so if you get the next hourly one you are going to be late for work.  You have to leave two and a half hours before work to make sure you can get there when it is a shopping centre that employs thousands of people.’

“A petition against changes to the 83 and 83a services was presented at Sheffield Council’s full meeting last week.

“Mary Fraser said it meant that elderly and disabled people in Firs Hill had to walk further and change buses to access shops in Burngreave.  She told councillors: ‘The elderly in Firs Hill don’t have any cars or anything like that to take them to these areas – I had to wait 25 minutes for a bus to take me home which I think is a disgrace.’

“Councillor Terry Fox said there had been several inquiries about bus changes and they would be passed on.

“Raymond Pixley, aged 89 and from Dore, said he had a printed timetable for the new 81 service which has replaced the 70 but it did not match the one online.  He said: ‘Even when I called SYPTE they couldn’t tell me which timetable was the right one.  We’ve got hospital appointments to get to and we can’t even find out what bus to get on.’

“Others have complained about long queues and cramped buses on the 52 routes from the city centre to Crookes, and the services up and down Ecclesall Road.

“Some called it a ‘shambles’ and one dad said his daughter now had to walk in the dark to catch the 87 bus to school or get there 45 minutes early by changing buses – which cost more in fares.

“Hairdresser James Pashley said there had been an incident of ‘bus rage’ at a stop outside The Crucible theatre when three buses passed as they were not in service on Thursday night.  He said: ‘When the 20 arrived a man asked if it went to Pitsmoor and the driver didn’t know – the passenger kicked off saying he had been there for 45 minutes.  They had an argument and the driver said he would call the police but then the passenger got out.’

“Transport chiefs say they are monitoring bus complaints to see which are more ‘significant’ – and that requests for changes will be reviewed.

“South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive said it has seen an increased number of complaints since the cuts were introduced last Sunday.

“A spokesman added: ‘This is normal when changes of this scale are made.  The executive and the bus operators are closely monitoring these and are determining which are temporary issues which will get resolved as people become more familiar with their journeys over the next two weeks, and which are more significant.  SYPTE is confident that accurate timetable information is available online, at bus stops and through printed timetables produced by the bus operators.  Passengers should be aware that printed timetables feature condensed travel information, and in some cases may include approximate times. We also encourage all of our passengers to plan their journey in advance, using our journey planning tools available at travelsouthyorkshire.com and on information kiosks in interchanges.  Customer satisfaction is important to us and we are encouraging bus users to give feedback on the network changes if something isn’t right, so the Sheffield Bus Partnership can understand where services are not meeting community needs. Requests for changes will be reviewed by the partnership and put in place where possible.'”

If SYPTE are so desperate to slash costs that they’re prepared to cut bus services to such an extent as to put people’s jobs at risk, make access to healthcare almost impossible and isolate the most vulnerable in the community, you’d think the easier cost savings would have been taken care of first, right?

Wrong.

Last year I filmed a member of staff at Sheffield Interchange spending 35 minutes wiping a grit bin clean with a bucket of soapy water.  A few weeks after there were THREE people cleaning the same windows – one with a squeegee, one with a blade and the other wiping the sills.  And now – as illustrated by the picture heading this blog – FOUR people sweeping up gravel. So I thought I’d ask SYPTE what was going on, starting with an email with the above picture and some others:

“Those pictures were taken at your Interchange today.  The first two show FOUR – repeat FOUR of your staff together doing nothing more than sweeping up gravel, including Anita Smith who I understand for reasons that escape me is a senior member of staff.  They were doing that – ALL FOUR OF THEM – for at least two hours; feel free to verify this via your CCTV records.

“The next picture is the state of the toilets at the same time (picture of toilets that looked like a bomb site).

“A few months ago I filmed the member of staff next to left wiping clean a grit bin near D2 with soapy water, taking 35 minutes.  This nonsense has to stop.  Without giving me a stock, straight bat answer such as ‘I’m sorry you were disappointed but be assured I’ll pass on your comments’ I would like you to answer the following questions:

1. What roles did each of the four members of staff have in sweeping up the gravel?

2. If all four did not have roles then why were they there, and will they be paid for that period?

3. Were any of the four staff more senior than the others and if so why did they not deploy surplus staff to clean the toilets?

4. How often are the toilets cleaned (cleaned does not mean attended, cleaned means swept and mopped, all surfaces wiped)?

A few days later came this reply:

“I have been passed your e-mail relating containing photos of 4 staff together on the runway at Sheffield interchange together with a photo of litter in the toilets. Following an investigation into this it transpires that the 4 staff were actually required to carry out a task they had been set – removing salt and grit from the kerbs and runways.  This required two staff to carry ‘buckets’ of a cleaning substance, one to do the ‘scrubbing and one to ensure their safety.

“Unfortunately due to current staffing levels any tasks such as this take cleaning staff form their regular duties including clearing the toilets.

“Thank you for taking the time to contact SYPTE, this allows us to explain why such actions take place.”

Not good enough.  I emailed back:

“Thank you for taking the trouble to look into this matter and for your prompt reply.  It is important that all SYPTE resources are used with the maximum efficiency and effectiveness, especially just a few months after the biggest cuts to the Sheffield bus network – including those services supported by SYPTE – in living memory.

“Whilst I perhaps expected any response to my email to be defensive, I am very disappointed with your explanation, though at the same time I have a morbid admiration for your defence of PTE staff, and the fantastical imagination necessary to justify allocating four people for at least half a day to sweep up some gravel in such a small area.

“Why would it take two members of staff to carry the cleaning agent? Surely, given the distance from the furthest point in the Interchange to the main building, even if the buckets couldn’t be carried in one journey by one person, then it would take less than 5 minutes for that person to make the same trip? And once the buckets were carried, what were the two people doing then?  Perhaps more puzzling is that in the pictures that I sent to SYPTE, plus many more I have, not only were no buckets being carried, but there is no evidence that any buckets were involved whatsoever. Maybe your investigation should have looked at the evidence before explaining it.

“As for the one person being responsible for the safety of the rest, presumably this was to ensure that if whoever was the scrubber couldn’t see or hear any oncoming buses then the person responsible for safety could alert the scrubber to the impending peril, and rapidly ensure that they and any equipment were relocated to a safe refuge until danger had passed. This, although rather over the top, would be reasonable enough, except in none of the pictures sent to you – plus others – was anyone looking in the direction of oncoming vehicles which can be clearly determined from the photographs.

“Wouldn’t it have been more honest to reply with a grudging admission that perhaps, on reflection, staff were not deployed in the more efficient and effective manner that day, that you’ll review procedures in future, and work with taxpayers rather than being defensive to the point of ridicule when all everybody wants is the maximum resources available for what the SYPTE should be doing, supporting local bus services?

“Wouldn’t it have been better for just two people to be allocated to the grit removal; one carrying the equipment and doing the actual scrubbing, and the other carrying the buckets then once the buckets were in situ snd not requiring to be carried, to be looking out properly for their safety while the scrubbing was taking place?

“Wouldn’t it have been better then for the two superfluous staff to be helping customers, promoting the use of local bus services, ensuring that tourist and locals alike are given the best possible travel experience in order that they will choose Sheffield again?

“Wouldn’t it be great if public bodies were more open, honest and clear, receptive to constructive criticism and be adaptive, ruthlessly efficient, always striving to do things better and maximising ever dwindling resources?”

No reply.  So the next time you’re not happy with your buses in South Yorkshire, you might ask if your council tax is being spent as efficiently as it might.  Local authorities seem to think they’re untouchable and get rather angry – almost intimidating – if you question them.

My previous blog on the forthcoming bus cuts in Derbyshire caused a bit of a kerfuffle at County Hall in Matlock.  I submitted a Freedom of Information request to Derbyshire County Council (DCC) to ascertain what the subsidy per passenger is on each supported bus service in order to see if there was a better way to preserve bus services rather that spend a proposed £1.3million on Demand Responsive Transport, a simple enough request and one sent in a purely personal capacity.  But DCC know who I work for, and rang them to tell me not to make such requests, and were clearly threatening unwelcome consequences for me and my employer if I refused to desist.

But that is my right – and your right – so exercise it.