Public ownership of bus services at forefront of Scottish Parliament debate

News stories are free to read. Click here for full access to all the features, articles and archive from only £2.99.

Lothian Buses is spoken of as an example of the public sector stepping in to cover ‘private sector failures,’ but Scottish Transport Minister highlights previous sustained decline in regulated market

The Scottish Parliament has held a debate on bus services in Scotland in the name of Ross Greer MSP (Scottish Green Party, West Scotland).

The Parliament expressed concern over reported rises in bus fares by First Bus, particularly in Glasgow and the West Scotland region, claiming fares for under-16s have risen by 40% and that single adult fares have increased by a further 15%, with unaccompanied child fares withdrawn entirely following a move in 2017 to no longer offer return fares. It also said that changes to fare structures that favour smartphone app-based ticketing will impact on those less likely to own a smartphone, and said several bus routes in Glasgow and the West Scotland region have been withdrawn or reduced with ‘little to no consultation with local residents.’

Ahead of the debate, McGills Managing Director, Ralph Roberts, provided a briefing note to MSPs.

He said: “Of all public transport journeys made, over 80% are made on bus. It is by far, the most popular method of public transport.

“Ask yourself, do you see four times the number of bus headlines than rail headlines? Or tweets? Or letters? Apart from a few exceptions, the answer is no. That is because bus passenger satisfaction ratings are very high. However, the direction of travel is going the wrong way, and bus companies are able to influence approximately 15% of the reasons for this – YOU are in control of the rest.”

On the topic of fare rises, he said: “It is undoubtedly the case, that increasing fares will put certain household budgets under pressure. This motion assumes that freezing fares is possible.

“I point you to the London bus market where the fares have been frozen. Due to the fares freeze, TfL is now in financial trouble and the Mayor of London is calling on the Westminster Government to fund this freeze, to the tune of £700m per annum. If fares are frozen, the money must come from somewhere – and if it cannot come from the fare paying passenger, it will have to come from the cost base of the business. In a bus company, that means cutting services.

“The point will come where cutting routes does not help the problem, it makes it even worse. Cutting services back, simply reduces footfall even more, and more cuts have to be made, and on it goes until the entire service, or operation, folds. You must ask yourselves why the need for such fares increases exist – if you ignore the facts, then you do both yourselves, and the bus travelling public, a disservice.

“I have yet to meet a politician, who is willing to stand beside me and get abreast of the real facts of the matter and put together a real credible solution to the problems the bus passenger faces. The current Transport Minister is trying very hard to create an environment where bus travel, and hence, the bus user, can prosper, but I fear that this effort will be wasted, unless all politicians, regardless of persuasion, can come together and honestly look at what we, as a society, want.

“Excess profits are bad. Excess payments to executives are bad. However, the current trend to demonise profit is infantile and stupid. Companies must create profit or they wouldn’t exist. New buses and infrastructure could not be bought without profit. Pay increases, as called for by the unions, would not be possible. The fantasy state with high pay, low fares and a very young zero emission fleet, is not possible, though if local authority and Scottish Government policy was more pro-bus and less pro-car, it would be a lot more possible than it currently is.”

Ross Greer opened the debate, stating: “I acknowledge that congestion is the single biggest issue for public transport and bus services in Scotland. The Confederation of Public Transport, whose chair is in Parliament today, has made that point clearly. However, fare increases will not make the situation better; indeed, they will make it worse.

“It does not have to be that way. Lothian Buses, here in Edinburgh, is a first-class example of a publicly run bus company that is run very much in the public interest. Lothian Buses is very much in the minority, though.

“In East Lothian, First Bus decided to cut all its routes. Luckily, the public sector stepped in and took over and the routes are now run by East Coast Buses, which is a subsidiary of publicly owned Lothian Buses. That is another example in which the public sector has picked up the pieces when the private sector has failed.”

Turning to the McGills briefing, he added: “[McGills] accuses us of ‘demonising profit’: for once, I do not totally disagree with the company. Private profit should have no place in an essential service such as public transport. The only priorities should be to provide an affordable, accessible and environmentally sustainable service for our communities. Right now, we have a patchwork of private and public bus provision across Scotland, along with plenty of public subsidies for private firms. That has created a lottery for communities; some cities have benefited far more – for example, from flat fares for all journeys – and some rural areas are better connected than others that have been left nearly isolated.

“We need to ensure that public options are available across Scotland, so that everyone can enjoy high-quality services. The private sector free-for-all experiment with public transport has failed for decades. It is time for reregulation and a public transport system that is run truly and entirely for the public good.”

Scottish Transport Minister, Humza Yousaf, praised the debate as excellent, but suggested publically-owned bus services might not be a certain solution: “It is worth noting that between 1960 and 1974, when the buses were regulated, we saw the steepest decline. There was not just a decade of decline, as was mentioned by one member: we are talking about decades of decline for which every single one of us who has been in power has some responsibility.”