Our previous full-scale debate on local bus services was way back on 12 June 2008. That is not to say that Labour has not campaigned relentlessly before and since for various improvements for bus users. Throughout this parliamentary session, we have fought for free bus travel for people who are on the lower rate of disability living allowance. We have fought for demand-responsive transport operators, such as community transport groups, to be admitted to the free bus travel scheme. Our campaign to force the Scottish Government to emulate the previous United Kingdom Labour Government’s pioneering success with a green bus fund was a triumph.
On two of the aforementioned issues, and on the wider regulatory issues, I consulted on a member’s bill to regulate Scotland’s bus services. Of the 95 consultation responses that were published in late 2009, only four were opposed in principle, but my subsequent bill proposal fell because of a lack of cross-party support.
Historically, Labour has led the Parliament on responses to the concerns of bus users. Indeed, Sarah Boyack’s Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 provides for statutory quality partnerships on individual bus routes and for statutory quality contracts, which is to say, franchise packages of routes that, for the first time since the deregulation of 1986, legally provide for the possibility of cross-subsidisation of socially necessary but unprofitable local bus services from the profits of more lucrative routes. However, no statutory quality partnerships or statutory quality contracts have been signed since 2001. It would appear that, for Scotland’s bus operators, partnership with the public sector has its limits.
It is not that bus operators mind accepting public money. The minister’s amendment reminds us of the figures. Approximately £255 million goes from the Scottish Government to bus operators for various purposes. That is not to mention the tens of millions of pounds more from local authorities for subsidised bus services and for school transport. The Scottish Government’s own figures point to a gross level of public financial support for Scotland’s bus industry that is not all that dissimilar to the level of public financial support for Scotland’s rail industry, but rail is, rightly in my view, heavily regulated. Why should local buses not be regulated as well? The Tory amendment says that it is because market forces are working well for local bus passengers. However, since 1986, many parts of Scotland, such as the Borders and the Highlands and islands, have had no commercial local bus services to speak of. The few local bus services that exist in rural Scotland are usually subsidised by the council.
So where in Scotland’s bus landscape are market forces operating classically? After a five-month study of UK local bus markets outside London and Northern Ireland from August 2009 to January 2010, the Office of Fair Trading referred the industry for a full-scale market investigation by the Competition Commission. Among other things in its published reasons for the referral, the OFT said:
“We found that markets tend to concentration (monopoly or near-monopoly) at the route, local and regional level.
We found that there were a number of barriers to entry to local markets that make it difficult for new operators to get into these concentrated areas.”
“We also found that operators with a strong market position charge nine per cent more than operators who are challenged by a large well resourced rival.”
The Competition Commission will report by the end of this calendar year on its investigation. Many Scottish stakeholders were quick to make representations to the commission on those issues, and I make no apology for quoting their submissions extensively to help build up a picture of the bus market in Scotland today.
In its submission to the commission, Strathclyde partnership for transport complained that prices of its intermodal ticket, the ZoneCard, were being forced up by bus operators
“in comparison with operators own multi-journey tickets and this encourages own-brand loyalty”.
SPT also said that it was
“aware of recent examples of tendered services being lost by the incumbent who then commercially registers the service for some of the journeys included in the tendered service ... thereby frustrating the company winning the bid.”
In its submission, West Lothian Council said:
“commercial bus services are constantly changing as operators seek to improve their financial and operational performance. As well as creating constant changes to services for users this is affecting our resources, especially when commercial services are withdrawn and require contract service replacement.”
Fife Council said:
“We believe geographic segregation is a significant issue in Fife. It is disappointing that competition isn’t materialising, especially as we are surrounded by many potential operators.”
It went on to say:
“Fife Council is concerned at the increasing costs of providing tendered services.”
The well-known and well-respected Scottish Association for Public Transport, the president of which is a Scottish National Party MSP, said:
“Despite having duties to improve air quality and amenity, local authorities have limited powers over bus services ... subsidy supports competing services on many routes, but does nothing to encourage integration, good connections and smart multi-modal ticketing.”
The woman with daily involvement in what limited regulation exists of Scotland’s local bus services, the traffic commissioner for Scotland, Joan Aitken, said:
“Scotland is similar to the rest of the UK in that the major cities have a near monopoly bus provider with the immediate surrounding hinterland having a near monopoly bus provider—a city and county pattern.”
Not for the first time, Mr Brown is wrong. If he listens for a bit longer, he will learn.
The traffic commissioner continued:
“Thus, Edinburgh has Lothian Bus whereas the surrounding counties have Stagecoach; Dundee has Travel Dundee ... and the counties have Stagecoach; Aberdeen has First Aberdeen and the counties have Stagecoach. Glasgow is slightly different but the dominant provider is First Glasgow with Stagecoach dominant in Ayrshire and down to Dumfries and Galloway and Arriva having a dominant presence in Paisley though with competition from McGills.”
She went on to say:
“Where it becomes difficult is when an operator registers a service to run slightly in front of an established service and the suspicion is that it is to be predatory rather than simply offering a better service to the travelling public.”
“The Scottish Government had produced detailed guidance for local authorities ... The Scottish Government said that there had been a discrete bus action plan within the National Transport Strategy. Most of the 17 actions listed had been delivered. The Scottish Government’s role had been mainly to produce detailed guidance ... The Scottish Government said that planning for bus services had been devolved to local authorities, which had been given funding to address bus priorities and provide support for local services and route development.”
In fairness to the Scottish Government, that is not its last word on the matter. By that, I am not referring to Keith Brown’s amendment, wherein he says something that he wished that he had said in the fuel debate a fortnight ago but did not. I am talking about last September, when John Swinney stepped in. Mr Swinney told the Parliament’s Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee:
“Earlier this year the Minister for Transport ... and I negotiated with the bus companies a change to the reimbursement rate for the concessionary travel scheme. That gave us protection around access to the bus network and the availability of routes”.
He went on to say:
“As part of that discussion we reached an agreement on the level of the bus service operators grant”.
I pressed him—
I am sorry, but I do not have time: maybe later. I pressed Mr Swinney at that meeting by asking:
“Are you now saying that the deal that was done”
—that was the deal with the bus service operators—
“will ensure that substantially the same commercial bus network will be in place for the next couple of years?”
John Swinney replied, “Yes”, and I said—and I say again:
“We will look at that in the light of what happens on the ground.”—[Official Report, Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, 21 September 2010; c 3274.]
Even as John Swinney spoke, Stagecoach Fife was cutting services and blaming it on the deal that the cabinet secretary had done. Since then, there have been more cuts in local bus services. In my constituency, a housing estate that has many elderly residents and which is atop a long steep hill had its service cut. More than 500 residents signed protest letters and the bus company and SPT are reviewing the situation.
Something similar happened in Dunfermline recently, but a bunch of pensioners—some of whom are in the public gallery, I believe—started a buses for people campaign, which forced the offending bus company, Stagecoach, to think again. However, those pensioners had no help from the local SNP-controlled council; I am sure that we will hear similar stories throughout the debate.
Here is Labour’s message to Scotland’s bus users, former bus users and would-be bus users. If you want local bus services that are more responsive—buses for people, if you will—with reasonable fares, through-ticketing, co-ordination with other bus services and modes of transport, and vehicles that are cleaner, greener and more accessible, board Labour’s bus: we are going your way.
That the Parliament believes that market failure in the bus industry requires legislation to regulate bus services in the best interests of the travelling public.
Today’s debate provides a timely opportunity to discuss the bus industry, assess its current status and consider what improvements can be made to ensure the delivery of bus services throughout Scotland. It is right that we do that on a regular basis.
Buses currently provide the key sustainable mass public transport, moving large numbers of people for a wide range of personal reasons at a reasonable cost. That contributes to the Government’s aims of enabling economic growth, improving social inclusion and accessibility, reducing emissions and improving air quality.
The number of bus passenger journeys made in 2009-10 amounted to 467 million, compared with 61.72 million journeys made by rail. Of those bus journeys, 151 million were made using the concessionary travel scheme: it was on that point that I tried unsuccessfully to intervene on Charlie Gordon and I will come back to it.
Bus company revenue from local bus services in 2009-10 amounted to £626 million, which reflects the substantial size of the industry in Scotland. The number of vehicle kilometres that were run in the commercial sector in Scotland in 2009-10 amounted to 300 million km, which represents 74 per cent of the total mileage for local services. That means that 79 million km of local services were subsidised by local authorities using their current powers to provide socially necessary services.
The Government’s role is to set the national policy framework and the strategic direction for bus services. The majority of bus services in Scotland are provided by the private sector operating in an open market. That encourages innovation, which can be difficult and at times risky, but can offer substantial rewards for the operators and the user.
I have been interested in the development of, for example, Lothian’s state-of-the-art fleet of buses that serve Edinburgh airport in direct competition with other modes of transport, in particular the private car. However, that level of service must be reflected in more areas—particularly in commuter areas—to encourage modal shift from the car.
As Charlie Gordon acknowledged, the Government has provided record levels of funding under the historic concordat with local authorities. We believe that local authorities are best placed to understand the transport needs in their areas. The development of a collaborative partnership between the public and private sectors is essential to the effective delivery of local services. That is particularly important during a period when resources become constrained, which is when creative and innovative solutions need to be devised to make the best use of more restricted resources.
Scotland is proud to have a manufacturer of high-quality innovative buses and to be the base for several world-class transport providers. The Government has made available a range of policy tools to local authorities to aid delivery of the bus services in their areas. They include punctuality improvement partnerships, statutory quality partnerships, park-and-ride schemes, traffic control orders, bus priority schemes, increased parking charges for private cars when that can lead to modal shift, increasing use of real-time information, tendering for socially necessary services, operating bus services under licence, and the provision of demand-responsive transport. That is not an exhaustive list of the policy options that we have used.
The important point is that a range of potential actions is available for local authorities to consider taking to meet the specific requirements and conditions in their areas. Many of the examples are delivered in Scotland, including travel planning that is being taken forward in Dundee as part of the smarter choices, smarter places initiative. The first statutory quality partnership in Scotland was put in place by Renfrewshire Council on 7 March, and another quality partnership is under development in Glasgow. A punctuality improvement partnership is in place in Dundee and it has resulted in changes in some bus priorities in the city.
Local authorities can operate services if appropriate via an operator’s licence. They can also operate local bus services under section 46 of the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981, under which fare paying passengers can be carried on school bus services, or by using school bus vehicles when not in use to provide those services—I believe that Scottish Borders Council does that. The councils in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow are considering bus lane enforcement, which was recently put out for consultation. Community transport partnerships are evident in places such as Badenoch and Strathspey, where a vital service is provided for local people. That has demonstrated how voluntary local schemes can work successfully.
Many of the tools can be adapted to meet the diverse aims of different parts of the country and, in particular, many interventions can be made for relatively little cost. Adopting a range of interventions in partnership with operators and other local authorities can deliver a synergy or step change in service delivery. That cannot be achieved overnight, but it can be developed through effective transport planning implemented determinedly over a period of years. Individual actions can be straightforward, but the more difficult part is identifying a shared idea of success and developing plans in partnership to put in place the actions needed to deliver effective transport.
We must ask what the Scottish Government has done in particular to advance the agenda. We have worked with a range of stakeholders to develop a detailed suite of guidance to enable local authorities and operators to use the policy tools that I have mentioned. They include statutory quality partnerships, punctuality improvement partnerships, guidance on competition issues related to agreements, which Charlie Gordon mentioned—it is right that the Competition Commission looks at such matters; that is the remedy that is available—park-and-ride frameworks and bus information.
In addition to those tools—and this is crucial—the Government provides substantial funding to the bus industry. I was pleased that Charlie Gordon acknowledged that. In 2010-11, more than £240 million will be spent on bus services. That includes funding for the national concessionary bus travel scheme and the bus service operators grant.
Charlie Gordon would not take my intervention, which was to find out whether the Labour Party’s position is that espoused by Richard Simpson, who said that he would cut back on concessionary travel, in particular for some groups of pensioners. It would be interesting to find out when Charlie Gordon sums up whether that is the Labour Party position. For our part, there will be £240 million spent on bus services. That also provides funding to local authorities to subsidise socially necessary services and the bus route development grant.
The Scottish Government fully supports our national concessionary bus travel scheme, which provides free local and long-distance bus travel throughout Scotland to older people and people with disabilities. That is essential to promote social inclusion and a more active lifestyle by enabling people to use the bus network to access public services, facilities and social networks. This Scottish Government has no plans to change the current eligibility for the concessionary scheme—at least, no plans to restrict it, unlike, as we have heard, the Labour Party apparently has.
It is on record.
Earlier this year, we agreed changes to the reimbursement rate with the Confederation of Passenger Transport that make the scheme more sustainable. Bus subsidy is also provided as the bus service operators grant, which is paid directly to bus operators. The BSOG benefits passengers by helping operators to keep their fares down, by enabling operators to run services that are less commercially viable and by supporting the bus network. From April 2010, we removed the link to fuel duty through the BSOG and introduced incentives for operators to run low-carbon vehicles to help in achieving our climate change targets. That is something that we can further address if the fuel stabiliser that was agreed by the Scottish Parliament is eventually adopted at Westminster. In 2010-11, £66.5 million is available for mileage run, which was agreed with the CPT on the understanding that operators would seek to minimise reductions in mileage.
Charlie Gordon also mentioned the Scottish green bus fund, which was promoted by the likes of Michael Matheson long before the Labour Party jumped on to that particular bus. The Government launched the Scottish green bus fund in July 2010 to encourage the purchase of low-carbon vehicles. The scheme funds the difference in cost between a low-carbon vehicle and a diesel equivalent. The fund of £4.4 million will enable 48 vehicles to be ordered for Scottish services throughout the country. Low-carbon vehicles allow growth in patronage to be increasingly favourable due to the reduction in emissions per passenger. The fund also enables economies of scale to apply to bus manufacturing, thereby enabling increasing numbers of low-carbon vehicles to operate in Scotland.
In addition, we have sought to address the increasing problem of poor air quality in our cities by making available funding to retrofit particulate traps on buses. I am delighted to announce that, in this financial year, both Glasgow and Edinburgh will benefit from funding to the tune of £524,000. That will allow their citizens to benefit from improved air quality as the retrofitting is carried out on city centre bus services.
I have mentioned fuel costs. The steep increases that we have seen recently threaten the economy and disproportionately penalise rural areas. For that reason, the Scottish Government calls for the Westminster Government to introduce a fuel duty regulator to mitigate the effect on prices, on individuals and on the wider economy. I do not think that it is possible for Labour members to hide their recent shameful abstention on the issue in trying to portray themselves as champions for bus passengers. A large part of the cost of running buses is fuel duty and the Parliament has voted in favour of a fuel duty stabiliser, a derogation for rural areas and the forgoing of Labour’s proposed increase in fuel duty this year in order to benefit passengers.
Buses provide the sustainable mass public transport that is necessary to support economic growth while minimising the impact of transport on the environment—we must try to strike a balance. Given the suite of policy initiatives that the Government has taken, we can at least accept that we have sought to achieve that balance; however, we must always re-examine, at different stages, whether the balance that has been struck is the right one, and we should commit to doing that. Central to our policy has been the view that the bus has an important role to play in achieving modal shift, which is the major deliverable in helping to achieve our climate change targets.
As we have demonstrated, the Scottish Government provides significant funding to the industry, which, as I have outlined, will increasingly incentivise investment in developing a modern vehicle fleet and reducing its environmental impact. We have provided detailed guidance on essential policy tools for operators and local authorities. I submit that those tools are sufficient to address the needs of local authority provision of bus services and that there is no requirement for further regulation. However, there is a need for transport to be given its appropriate priority and for partnership working across local authorities and with bus operators to achieve transport aims.
Given its flexibility, efficiency and accessibility, the bus is an essential part of our community, our economy and our future. I encourage all those who are involved across the public and private sectors to work together to seize the potential of a positive future for buses.
I move amendment S3M-8177.1, to leave out from “believes” to end and insert:
“notes the Labour proposals for regulation of bus services; recognises the important role that bus services provide to communities across Scotland; welcomes the Scottish Government’s investment of almost £250 million in the bus network, including funding for the national concessionary travel scheme, the Bus Service Operators Grant, which supports the bus network, investment of £4.4 million in the Scottish Green Bus Fund and over £500,000 in retrofitting particulate traps in buses that help reduce costs, and calls for more practical support for passengers and bus companies including the introduction of a fuel duty regulator, as agreed by the Parliament on 2 March 2011, which would be of genuine help to bus users, reducing costs, unlike Labour proposals on VAT, which can be reclaimed and would make no difference to bus companies or users.”
I was intrigued when news filtered out that Labour was to set aside the whole of this morning’s debate—the last major debate of this parliamentary session—for a debate on transport. I wondered whether, after all, something new and interesting was coming. After a fortnight of the most spectacular basket of U-turns in recent Scottish political history, what could it be? Was the U-turn and knifing of Des McNulty over a graduate contribution to fund higher education, followed by the self-immolation of Mr Gray over his own ringing calls for a council tax increase, followed by the dissection of Mr Kerr’s accident and emergency hospital closure plans to be followed by a similar or even more spectacular volte face by Mr Gordon on transport? Will I never learn? Instead, we have had a replay of Charlie Gordon’s greatest hits and prejudices—an end-of-session blast from an old-Labour, hard-left rock-and-roll tribute act. In front of backing singers Mary Mulligan and Karen Gillon sits Charlie Gordon, the brains and the familiar gravelly voice of the band—the Mick Jagger of the act.
Today promised so much but, sadly for old tribute acts performing many of their old tunes, fashions have changed and it all sounds hopelessly dated. Bus regulation, alleged market failure, legislation—the same old litany, repeated often enough in the hope that, eventually, repetition will make a truth out of a demonstrable nonsense.
Scotland’s bus industry is far from a market failure. It is a market success and a world-class and industry-leading success at that. Mr Brown detailed examples that show that that is the case. In the most recently published industry survey, only 5 per cent of the travelling public, whose best interests Mr Gordon sets out to represent, rated their level of bus service as poor. On the contrary, more recent statistics illustrate that 73 per cent of people believe that buses are on time, 80 per cent believe them to be frequent, 75 per cent believe that they operate when they are needed and so on and so forth.
I do not think that I will, today.
Scotland’s bus industry is an important private sector contributor to our gross domestic product at a time when there is arguably an overdependence on economic activity that is generated within or by the public sector. In fact, we should be celebrating the success of a commercialised bus industry that does not generate any great burden on the public purse during these straitened times. Virtually 100 per cent of First Aberdeen’s mileage, and around 98 per cent of First Glasgow’s, is commercial. Further, the industry employs around 18,200 people.
Much has been achieved for Scotland since Mrs Thatcher’s groundbreaking legislation in 1985, which was followed by the Transport (Scotland) Act 1989. Indeed, much has been achieved by the successful companies that have emerged and those entrepreneurs who have flourished, such as Mr Souter. Mrs Thatcher made Mr Souter what he is and Alex Salmond keeps him where he is—a compliment that Mr Souter seems happy to return. True, there is a commercial fee for that, but what a dividend! Maybe that is the market failure to which Mr Gordon alludes—a commercial organisation failing to support Labour but free to make its own mistakes.
Labour’s 2001 act failed as a catalyst. Mr Gordon’s bill proposal collapsed in January last year and was neatly dispensed with by my very good friend and current UK coalition colleague Alison Mclnnes when she said:
“Any additional legislative approach, as proposed by Mr Gordon, may be unnecessary. In addition, I do not believe that Scotland’s bus services would be best served by additional regulation. Mr Gordon’s proposals would have been a strain on Scotland’s already overstretched local councils. It is likely they would have increased the costs involved for operators, while reducing private sector investment in the bus industry”.
It was true then, and it is true now.
In its briefing for today’s debate, the Confederation of Passenger Transport illustrates just how much is currently being invested by our commercial bus sector in the best interests of the public, whom Mr Gordon seeks to champion. It mentions the more than £61 million that has been invested by Stagecoach in new vehicles in the last four years, with a bus fleet average age of eight years, 66 per cent of which is achieving the low-floor accessibility targets; the introduction of some 120 hybrid electric vehicles; a 57 per cent increase in McGill’s Bus Service’s fleet during the current year; a £39 million investment by Lothian Buses over the past four years in new buses, with an entire fleet achieving the low-floor requirement; and a £15 million investment by First Glasgow in the shuttle service to Glasgow airport. That is all being accomplished without the regulation that Mr Gordon seeks.
Scottish Conservatives believe that further opportunities exist if we open up our motorway hard-shoulder network and are able to sweat that asset to the advantage of passengers and commuters. That is why we welcome the commitment to complete the M8 and the progress that has been made in recent years on the M74 and M80.
I express disappointment—as does Stagecoach for that matter—at Scotland being allowed to fall behind the widespread rollout of hard-shoulder running in England by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition Government. The postponement of the all-too cautious M77 pilot park-and-ride hard-shoulder running scheme, which would have facilitated new fast coach access to Glasgow from park-and-ride facilities in Ayrshire—a considerable additional investment in the area—is much to be regretted, and we will campaign in the forthcoming election for a major expansion of motorway hard-shoulder running, which will be a non-regulated additional opportunity for major investment in public passenger transport by the commercial bus industry.
Mr Gordon has provided us with a timely reminder this morning that, as in so many walks of life, Margaret Thatcher lit the beacon and showed us the way. Bus regulation belongs to our prehistoric industrial and political past. The last thing that our successful commercial bus industry requires is for dinosaurs to once again rule the earth—or, more particularly, the Government of Scotland.
I move amendment S3M-8177.3, to leave out from “believes” to end and insert:
“notes that voluntary partnerships between bus operators and local authorities have proved a successful means of delivering quality bus services in many areas of Scotland; congratulates Perth-based Stagecoach and Aberdeen-based FirstGroup on their unparalleled global success; further congratulates Lothian Buses on being named the best bus company in the UK for 2007 and notes the success that this company has achieved since the Transport (Scotland) Act 1989; therefore, in light of the clear evidence, cautions against the inappropriate regulation of bus services, and urges local authorities concerned about services in their area to examine those voluntary partnerships operating outside the statutory framework that have delivered most in terms of results and to consider what lessons can be learned and applied.”
As Jackson Carlaw said, we have been here before. It is a bit like groundhog day.
Charlie Gordon has revisited a proposal that he knows has no majority support. That is borne out by the amendments to his motion that have been lodged. In fact, he could not even garner enough support to take forward a member’s bill on the subject beyond the preliminary stage. That constant harking back only distracts from the real issues. The Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 contains adequate provision for statutory quality partnerships and quality contracts. The fact that those mechanisms have not been much used suggests to me that local authorities find a collaborative approach to be much more fruitful. I am also pretty sure that local authorities are mindful of the costs that would befall them from intervention in the market.
We can easily find examples of innovation and success in the bus industry throughout Scotland, with the possible exception of parts of Glasgow. If the Labour Party and its representatives on regional and local transport authorities in Glasgow had spent a fraction of the time and effort that they have expended in the past decade on trying to get support for reregulation on actually working with the bus industry, we would have seen a step change in bus services in Glasgow.
In Scotland, we have the benefit of world-class, home-grown bus operators in FirstBus, Stagecoach and Lothian Buses, besides many good local independent operators. The most effective and lasting improvements to the bus network have come from partnership working that has involved the industry, local authorities, regional transport partnerships and the Government. Where councils foster a supportive environment, we find evidence of the commercial market growing the network. For example, Stagecoach and National Express are partners with Dundee City Council and Angus Council in a bus punctuality improvement partnership, and Renfrewshire Council, South Ayrshire Council and Glasgow City Council are all working with operators to create statutory quality partnerships, which will see all parties committing to improving the services and bus infrastructure that are available to the travelling public. The City of Edinburgh Council and Lothian Buses recently completed a pioneering scheme that involved older vehicles being retrofitted with exhaust technology that markedly improved their emissions levels.
The provision of first-class, flexible bus services involves a package of measures, and is as much about what happens off as on the buses. The improvements that are rightly expected from the industry, such as in modern buses, value-for-money fares, consistency and reliability, must be supported by public investment in infrastructure, whether that is in measures to ensure that buses do not get caught up in congestion, park-and-ride schemes or up-to-the-minute timetabling information. Innovation and investment from bus companies must be matched by commitment and investment from local and national Government.
I am not pretending that everyone has the bus services that they would like. Bus routes have been cancelled and fares have risen. In response to local concerns, I conducted a bus survey in rural Aberdeenshire recently and found clear evidence of inadequate services. My response to that was not to call for the reregulation of the bus industry; rather, it was to meet local operators, the local council and even local social enterprises to see what improvements could be made. The early indications are that some improvements could be brought in.
Few, if any, local authorities would relish taking on the task of the wholesale planning and funding of local bus services. We all know already of councils that are cutting back on their supported bus services because of the financial pressures that they face. The truth is that a cheque book would help, not the statute book.
Of course there are gaps in the market, but much more could be done within the existing framework to encourage the greater take-up of bus services. In a recent inquiry, the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee considered the relationship between transport and land use planning and made a number of sensible suggestions on future developments. The Government’s report on proposals and policies, which we discussed yesterday, notes that greater focus on travel planning would make a difference. Larger employers should work closely with bus operators to identify commuting and working hours patterns to help to trial new services.
Greater attention to passenger priority measures would allow operators to use their resources better to provide a greater network of services. Resources are unnecessarily tied up in dealing with the impacts of congestion in our towns and cities. In some parts of Scotland, overall journey times have increased by as much as 12.5 per cent in the past five years. That increases bus companies’ operating costs without generating additional fares income. It disappoints me that, in Aberdeen, which is in my region, no new bus priority measures have been introduced for many years. That has meant longer journey times for passengers and higher operational costs for bus operators. Stagecoach reports that an extra seven buses are required to maintain service reliability because of congestion in Aberdeen city centre, at an additional cost of about £650,000 a year. Surely that money could be better spent on developing new routes or more frequent services.
The Government has been, at best, ambivalent about the bus industry. In the early years, it cut the BSOG and had lengthy wrangles over the concessionary fares reimbursement formula. It ended the rural transport fund, hindering rural communities in finding local solutions. Community transport and demand-responsive transport must be recognised as essential partners in providing a joined-up bus network. The bus route development scheme was abolished, despite having been successful at growing markets. Liberal Democrats would like that to be reinstated.
It has been disaggregated to the point at which it is of little value to anyone. It is not enough to roll out new services and it has not been used in that way.
I ask the Parliament to join me in recognising the importance of efficient and accessible bus services at a time of high fuel costs and changing travel patterns. There have been positive developments in the bus industry in recent years, but more progress can be made on improving access to bus services, encouraging modal shift and reducing congestion. The provision of efficient and affordable bus services must be supported with the necessary infrastructure on local and trunk roads, including expanded park-and-ride schemes, bus passenger priority measures and accurate and accessible timetable information.
I move amendment S3M-8177.2, to leave out from “believes” to end and insert:
“recognises the importance of efficient and accessible bus services at a time of high fuel costs and changing travel patterns; welcomes the positive developments in the bus industry in recent years, but believes that more progress can be made in improving access to bus services, encouraging modal shift and reducing congestion; believes that the provision of efficient and affordable bus services must be supported with the necessary infrastructure on both local and trunk roads, including expanded park-and-ride schemes, bus passenger priority measures and accurate and accessible timetable information; supports community transport and demand-responsive transport schemes in areas where public transport availability is limited, and supports the restoration of the Bus Route Development Scheme to aid the development of new and existing registered local bus services that have the potential for growth.”
When I was growing up in the rural Borders, a car was a luxury that few could afford and, as a family with only one wage, we certainly could not. For us, the bus was the only way to get from A to B. To get to the now closed Peel hospital, the Woolies at Hawick where we could buy records—yes, I remember them—down to Kelso for the rugby or, for a real adventure, to take a trip up to Edinburgh, we had to go by bus. That was 30 years ago. In the intervening period, car ownership has become affordable for many. However, with bus deregulation, in constituencies such as mine, the car has become a necessity for many and something that they have to keep even when common sense tells them to get rid of it.
Rising fuel prices impact hardest on rural communities and harder still on the poorest families. Many families are seriously considering giving up their car. They will not forget that, two weeks ago, you lot in the other parties voted not to reduce VAT on fuel. That would have been a practical measure that could have put money into those people’s pockets this week and next, but there we go—a press release is far more important than practical help.
We cannot get away from the fact that many families never had a car to give up. My mother and thousands like her do not drive and, even if they did, they would not have the independent means to run a car. Their ability to have what members have and what we call a normal life—going to the shops, getting a job, going to hospital or college or just going out for a meal—is dictated by the availability of a bus. Few members know what it is like not to be able to do something simply because they do not have the ability to get there. The reality for many people in cities, towns and villages throughout Scotland is all too simple: the bus simply does not come to them or it stops too early in the evening or does not run at weekends. Those are the facts.
Take the young man living in Forth whom I met early in my time as an MSP. His ability to get a job was hampered because he could not get to work early enough in the morning and he could not take a job with a late shift because he could not get home late in the evening. That was because the buses did not run at those times. An elderly constituent of mine who has been married for 50 years and whose wife is in hospital cannot visit her because the bus does not run in the evening. That is no way of life for people.
Only in February, in the wonderful new world that the minister has created, a service that took an adult constituent of mine with learning difficulties to their supported employment was withdrawn at the stroke of a pen. That is the real world and those are real situations. Jackson Carlaw might not understand it—but then, the Tories got one out of 50-whatever-it-was in the previous election. They must do better in the next electoral test, but I doubt that they will.
Charlie Gordon pointed out that, yes, on some routes people are almost overrun with buses. One route in my area has three companies racing one another up and down the road. I welcome the inquiry by the Competition Commission, but in itself the inquiry is not good enough. The communities that I represent tell me that they want the Parliament to do more and to stop passing the buck to everyone else. When buses are removed without proper notice, it is the ordinary man and woman in the street who suffer. They are the ones who are left without the means to get to their work, to their shops and to their colleges.
“Provision of bus services should be more than just ... what’s profitable.”
I could not agree more. That is why I supported Charlie Gordon’s member’s bill. That is what it was about. If Aileen Campbell and her like on the SNP benches had supported it too, we would have been in a place to deliver the quality bus service that the people whom I represent want.
I know that the Tories do not support bus reregulation; they do not use buses, and they do not represent the kind of communities that I do. The more times that Jackson Carlaw mentions Margaret Thatcher, the more votes he racks up for the Labour Party. So bring it on. As long as he keeps reminding people of the kind of Scotland that she delivered, we will keep supporting him.
The Liberal Democrats do not believe in anything very much now, but it is the SNP that really surprises me. I was at a loss to understand why the SNP did not support Charlie Gordon’s bill. Was it just another broken promise like the ones on class sizes, a referendum, a local income tax, cancelling student debt, or the home-owner loan? No, it was far more sinister. The truth is out there now. The truth is that the SNP has 500,000 reasons for not supporting bus reregulation; it has 500,000 reasons for not supporting the poorest and most isolated people in Scotland. There are clear dividing lines in this election. I will stand up for the poor and for my constituents; the SNP will stand up for the people who fund its election campaign.
Let me declare a personal interest in the debate: I am a bus card holder. I note that the only bus card holders who are likely to participate in the debate appear to be on the SNP benches.
Mr Gordon is clearly destined for great things in the Labour Party. He is almost unique as a front-bench spokesperson, as he is the only one who has not been kicked in a tender part of his anatomy by a forced U-turn in policy.
Of course, questions arise over the issue of reregulating the bus industry. Sarah Boyack was the transport minister when the previous legislation went through, but she is absent today so we cannot ask her about the decisions made and about why some of the constraints are what they are. However, let us explore them. Statutory bus partnerships are likely to be at the very edge of what is legally possible under the Scotland Act 1998. The renationalisation of the bus network, via the imposition of regulation, is unlikely to come within the legal powers of this Parliament.
The Labour Party has a track record on such issues. It wishes to reduce the VAT on fuel from 20 to 17.5 per cent—entirely and blissfully unaware of European law that means that only three VAT rates may be operated within a state. The three VAT rates that already exist are 0, 5 and 20 per cent. It is simply not legal to reduce a single element of the 20 per cent VAT to 17.5 per cent. There is not the legal power to do it. However, there is the legal power to overturn the fuel duty increases that are hitting the bus industry—increases that were introduced by Labour. But of course, Labour has not joined the consensus that wants to do something about that. The Labour Party should do its research properly. It has manifestly and demonstrably failed to do that.
Let us consider the position of the bus companies. We have some regulated bus services in the United Kingdom, most notably those that are operated by Transport for London. Let me pose a question that has a rather awkward answer. We are talking about a convenient policy hitting an inconvenient fact. In a regime in which there is regulation, are the returns for bus companies higher or lower than in an unregulated regime? Curiously enough, they are higher. The bus companies would probably be quite happy with such a policy.
Furthermore, because it would in effect remove a private right from commercial interests, we would have to pay the bus companies for loss of right to operate services. What figure should be put on that? The normal rule of thumb in such circumstances is one year’s turnover. To renationalise bus services in Scotland would cost—admittedly only once—£750 million. Even for the Labour Party, that is a breathtaking financial commitment, of which it has said nothing in the debate thus far. If the Transport for London model is anything to go by, Labour would find itself paying more for bus services. I am sure that Brian Souter would be giving his money to the Labour Party if it were to implement such a policy.
Let us consider the amendments. I say in all candour that they all have some merit. Alison McInnes conceded that the abolition of the bus route development scheme has perhaps not yet happened. It is a matter for local authorities, which makes that issue a problem.
In the current environment, local bus services’ mileage has gone up by 3.8 per cent, in part because the BSOG has been increased. The BSOG has also been environmentalised. In addition, the average fare has dropped by 2.5 per cent. “If you want to get on Labour’s bus, we’re going your way”—I do not think so, any time soon.
If we nationalise bus services, we can forget local decision making. Someone will be sitting in Edinburgh, deciding which local bus services we want. That is how it will work. At the moment, the decision making is close to the point of application.
There is support for bus services. I have used them hundreds of times. I highlight the 308 from Aberchirder to Inverurie. On the most recent occasion I used the service, on the whole route I was the only passenger. I admit that it was a Sunday afternoon. Services such as the 308 are essential services that are surviving with the support of the council in Aberdeenshire—a Liberal-led council—and of course through the Government’s support for the BSOG. Yes, there is a challenge to do more in buses, but the Labour Party should not deceive the people of Scotland by imagining that what it is saying today is anything other than a £750 million commitment, no defined outcomes, 100 per cent focus on process and nothing for passengers.
The issue of transport, and in particular buses, is extremely important to people in my constituency and in similar communities throughout Scotland that rely completely on public transport. Public transport is vital in Coatbridge and Chryston because we have one of the lowest levels of car ownership in the country. For people who cannot afford a car, a reliable and affordable public transport system is a necessity and a good bus service is essential. For those who can afford a car, a good bus service is probably the only way to get them to leave the car at home and travel in a much greener way. We should encourage that.
I start on a positive note. I am delighted that the new Airdrie to Bathgate rail link, which was approved under the previous, Labour-led Executive, has finally opened, although in the interests of safety and security, particularly for women, I am disappointed that there are no guards on those trains.
I certainly will, but we need to consider transport in the round to see how important buses are.
The number of trains from Coatbridge to Edinburgh on the new line has just increased to two an hour. As the frequency increases, passenger numbers will increase. My constituency lacks buses, but the public transport of the trains provides access to a new job market.
The railway has opened up Coatbridge and its surrounding areas to a new population of potential visitors. I encourage people to come to Coatbridge, because we have fantastic attractions such as the Time Capsule, the Summerlee museum and Drumpellier country park. Those attractions are now more accessible by rail.
As I said, it is difficult to reach my constituency by bus. It is also difficult to go from my constituency to Edinburgh by bus, so the new rail line helps my constituents to access sporting events at Murrayfield and concerts, for example.
As today is St Patrick’s day, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the St Patrick’s day festival will culminate in Coatbridge this weekend. It is easy enough for people to come to that festival by rail, but—unfortunately—coming to the family fun day will be far more difficult for people from the wider Lanarkshire area and for my constituents who live in areas that do not benefit from rail links and who suffer from poor bus provision.
In this parliamentary session, I have been inundated by constituents who have contacted me about bus provision across my constituency. In the past year, I have campaigned for the reregulation of bus services. My campaign petition has received almost 2,000 signatures from people in every part of my community who call for buses to be regulated. My constituents—many of whom are pensioners—tell me that, often, buses are infrequent and inconsistent, and they are non-existent at some times. The main population centres are not easily accessible by public transport. I have been advised that many services have been cancelled or altered at short notice, which has caused terrible problems for commuters. Those problems are the direct consequence of the lack of regulation. A public service is being left to the whims of the market, which means that profits come before the service.
The minister knows that I have written to him about the problems that have arisen in Moodiesburn following the sudden opening of the new bypass, which seems to have been done without consideration for its impact on bus passengers. I have a mailbox full of complaints from concerned constituents who, following the opening of the bypass, have turned up at their normal bus stops at their usual times only to find that their buses and many others no longer travel via Moodiesburn. Many FirstBus services that used to pass through there no longer do so. People who used to rely on the X4, X5 and X80 services along Cumbernauld Road can no longer board those buses. That is extremely infuriating for people who must travel at rush hours, because the buses that are running are crammed.
The Scottish Government did not consult my constituents before opening the bypass. My constituents were given no warning that their buses would no longer run and that they would be left stranded and cut off from work, hospitals and shops. Will the minister tell us, in summing up, how he intends to resolve that problem, which he caused?
The services in Moodiesburn highlight the wider issue of bus services in Scotland. Given the lack of regulation, bus timetables and bus routes are often changed at short notice, which leaves passengers to suffer. It is outrageous that Charlie Gordon’s proposed bill was not supported. I am pleased that Scottish Labour is committed to reregulating bus services, because people in my constituency want a better deal from their buses. They tell me in their thousands that the situation is not good enough.
People know that the SNP is on the side of the big bus companies, that Brian Souter is supporting the SNP financially and that the SNP’s commitment to reregulate buses disappeared from its manifesto. Only the Labour Party is prepared to stand up for ordinary people and to ensure that bus passengers get the service that they deserve. Scotland needs a Government that will do that—a Government that stands up for ordinary working-class people.
The strength of feeling in my community is clear. People are demanding better buses. They will get them with a Labour Government.
For the avoidance of doubt, the question of bus regulation was not ever in the SNP manifesto.
In the debate, we are trying to look forward to find ways to ensure that passengers get a better service. Having been on the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee for the past four years, I am well aware that we can probably make the best progress on better regulation and the integration of services.
If you do not mind, Presiding Officer, I will stray slightly from the subject of debate. In many places, bus, rail, ferry and air services are not often linked up. In my region, it is very important that they are. Part of the problem is the different regulatory arrangement for each of those modes of transport. In looking forward, we need to find a much better way in which to do that job. The committee has said so, but I have not heard a call for better regulation of that sort reflected in the debate and yet the issue affects many of my constituents across the Highlands and Islands, and far wider than that.
Another set of better regulation that has to be worked in relates to commercial bus transport providers and other needs in my area. As the “Our Rural Future” report that has just been published points out:
“In rural areas, Demand Responsive and Community Transport can be vital transport services, and we would encourage Local Authorities to look proactively at enhancing both the provision and the coordination of existing schemes.”
As we have heard, the removal of ring fencing and the transfer of responsibility to local authorities means that they can choose not to make such transport a priority. In my area, Highland Council has seen a reduction over the past couple of years but it has chosen to spend around £50,000 on community transport. If community transport is seen as a priority for improvement, it ought to be given a higher priority than that.
Our circumstances in the Highlands require integration between commercial services, community services and ambulance services. The Scottish Ambulance Service provides both emergency response and patient transport services. I see a lot of friction between community transport needs and patient transport requirements. The health service should look to see whether patient transport services to Raigmore hospital from outlying places should carry other passengers, too. In that way it would be possible for people to get the transport that they require, which is being denied to them at the moment because of the way in which the local authority has cut its community transport budget. That should be possible, because there are collaborations between the health service and the local authority social work department to deal with adult and old age needs under the aegis of NHS Highland. However, the Ambulance Service does not articulate with Highland Council, NHS Highland or whatever. I ask the minister to start to look at that with his colleagues.
Changes to bus timetables have caused a lot of pain in the far north of the Highlands. However, Brian Souter has described those services as marginally successful, and one can understand why. Petrol and diesel prices are very much higher in Highland where longer distances are involved and fuel is more expensive, particularly following the increase in VAT. There are real problems around the distances involved, and certain places are being cut out in order for bus services to meet any kind of timetable that matches the rail timetable.
In the village that I live in, which is only 17 miles away from Inverness, we have been threatened with a reduction in services because of time and other constraints that relate to long-distance routes from Caithness, namely the X99 and the 25X. It is ridiculous for people who live in a village about 6 miles away from Dingwall to find that, if they want to go to Dingwall on a Saturday—for example, to attend a football match at Ross County—it will take them six or seven hours to travel to the game, watch the game and return home. That is the sort of ridiculous situation that we are dealing with at present, but it is the kind of situation that the commercial bus companies must listen to.
I am delighted that, because Stagecoach is attempting to make its services more economic, as today’s announcement states,
“13,800 Stagecoach drivers will start using the GreenRoad system” and will get bonuses for driving better and using less fuel. I would like some of its competitors to commit to the same scheme, to reduce the cost of diesel and, perhaps, the price of fares. On top of that, it is vitally important, when we talk about buses, that the fuel duty regulator and the derogation for rural areas should kick in. With the rising price of diesel in peak oil times, we do not have the means to sustain community transport, ambulance services or commercial vehicles. We should widen out the debate and look at the issue in that context. The future of regulation should be better regulation, not more of it.
I am grateful to Charlie Gordon for focusing on bus travel in the last party debate before the election. However, as I said in an intervention, there is a contradiction at the heart of his argument, in that he criticises market failure but seems to propose market monopoly as the solution. The Labour Party’s contribution this morning has resembled nothing more than SNP economic arguments for independence—isolated from the real world, with ordinary economic rules suspended. For example, it is unclear to me how the low level of bus provision in the Borders that Charlie Gordon mentioned can be dealt with by regulation. Where would the cross-subsidy come from? How would the lower fares that he requests be paid for? Karen Gillon gave the game away when she said that buses should not be about profit. They should not be entirely about profit, but they should be about profit because, if there is no profit, there is no money to invest in the industry.
The main bus services to different parts of Glasgow are fairly frequent. Of course, there are gaps and difficulties in some places at off-peak times, and concerns that are caused by change. As representatives, all of us take up those matters from time to time. I have done so after the recent route and fare changes, not least regarding the services—or lack of them—serving the 2,000 new houses in the Drumsagard area of Cambuslang. However, it is difficult to describe Glasgow as an area that is characterised by market failure. The challenges are rather different. They include the lack of enough real-time electronic information—working information—at bus stops; inadequately developed multimodal ticketing, to which Charlie Gordon referred; and the number of relatively empty buses crossing the city centre.
I cited the transport commissioner, who described most of the bus scene in Scotland as a monopoly and near-monopoly city and county arrangement. Does the member deny her experience and knowledge?
No, I am trying to put the issue into context and to explain the deficiency at the heart of the member’s proposition.
I will say a little more about Glasgow. We lack an adequate city centre network to enable people to get around the city centre, from Argyle Street to Sauchiehall Street or to Charing Cross. There is the Queen Street-Central gap on the railways and there are not enough park-and-ride facilities and not enough easy transfer points on the railway or underground to allow people to get across the city.
Statutory quality partnerships have been a great success in many ways. They have led to more low-floor buses, buses that are more modern and more comfortable, bus priority lanes and improved emission technology. In Aberdeen, for example, many, if not most, bus stops have real-time electronic information—boards at the bus stop that say, “Number 32, 2 minutes”, “Number 75, 8 minutes”, and so on. The same is true of many other places. In Glasgow, there are such boards at Ingram Street and one or two other locations. However, when standing at the Ingram Street bus stop, I have seen the board display “Number 16”—the bus that goes out to my area in Burnside—“9.37”, only for 9.37 to come and go and for the number 16 to vanish off the screen, like the Cheshire cat. I may be wrong, but the board looks and acts like an electronic timetable, instead of giving real-time information. How often are those indicators—and the indicators inside buses that tell people what the next bus stop is—broken? The issue is not just one of static information. The success of such systems stands or falls by their ability to attract passengers, not least women passengers. On a cold, dark evening in winter, few women will stand at a dodgy bus stop for an indeterminate period if they can avoid doing so.
Perhaps the minister should read the policy. We have certainly said that there is a need to consider whether people such as me are entitled—as Stewart Stevenson is—to a bus pass, and whether that is the best use of the bus pass. Nobody is suggesting the abandonment of the scheme altogether.
I will continue with the point that I was coming to. Real-time bus information, if it works, is a godsend, and it is a necessity if people are to stop taking their cars and if there is to be real modal shift. The same applies to ticketing.
I will say a few words about the set-up. Buses do not stand in isolation—they are part of the broader transport network. I had a part to play in getting the previous Government to institute the bus route development scheme, supporting bus operators in developing routes that had potential for growth but which needed investment. It was one of the SNP Government’s worst decisions to cancel—sorry, disaggregate—the scheme. Public policy is very much required for such purposes, and such schemes are successful.
Scotland needs a modern transport infrastructure. The work that has been done to develop that and to promote public transport has stalled and gone into reverse under the SNP. The Labour obsession with reregulation is also a barrier to progress.
Good transport policy ensures that people and goods are conveyed effectively where they wish or need to go: for work, leisure, shopping or school. Good transport policy supports the economy. Under the SNP Government, we have gone backwards in so many ways. The Glasgow airport rail link has been cancelled; the bus route development fund has been cancelled; empty promises were made about the subway; there is no commitment to crossrail; and there is a horrendous lack of ambition on high-speed rail.
A fortnight ago, we had a by-election in Clydebank—in the Duntocher, Faifley and Hardgate ward. The key issue in that by-election was buses, specifically the number 118. First had proposed to withdraw that service, which runs between Duntocher and Gartnavel hospital via Bearsden. In conjunction with my Labour colleague Councillor Douglas McAllister, I went to see First and made representations to Strathclyde partnership for transport. As a result of those efforts, the Sunday service was reinstated, the evening service was reinstated and we got additional journeys at peak times.
We secured an outcome. It was not necessarily one that met the quality of the previous service—there was still a reduction—but we made a difference. In a sense, that was because we worked with the community. Hundreds of people signed a petition saying that they would no longer be able to get to Gartnavel to visit their relatives. People who worked at the hospital would not be able to get there either. Huge inconvenience would be caused by the withdrawal of service. Those signatures prompted the bus companies to respond by making it clear that there was a proper market for the service if it was properly run and organised, and that people depended on it. We listened to the people who came to speak to us and we acted on their priorities. We got an outcome.
In the by-election a fortnight ago, we were rewarded with 60 per cent of the votes. Our vote went up and the SNP’s vote went down, despite the efforts of Mr Paterson late in the day to involve himself, trying to claim the credit for what he had done, which was the square root of nothing in this instance. I see that he is not present in the chamber this morning for this debate on bus regulation.
We want to ensure that people have a bus to catch. The number 118 is not the only service in my constituency that is under threat. Other services are under threat, too. There are proposals by Glasgow Citybus to withdraw the number 84, which runs from Old Kilpatrick to Gartnavel hospital. The number 11 service is to run only to Clydebank, and not on to Parkhall, so that community will not have access to a key hospital and other services. The people who live in Roman Crescent, in Old Kilpatrick, will no longer be able to get up the hill on the bus, because there will be no bus for them to get on.
The dearth of bus services in those areas is matched by a profusion of bus services in other areas. In Barns Street in Clydebank, which is a narrow residential street, hundreds of buses go down the road every day and the street has had to be chicaned to manage the flow of buses, despite the fact that the most direct route between the Glasgow boundary and Clydebank bus station is a dual carriageway that runs parallel with Barns Street. The bus services all run down Barns Street because they are competing with one another for a relatively limited number of residential customers, although there is a perfectly good road, which would make for quicker journeys and would not lead to such disruption.
No one can say that we have a rational system, when bus operators put on and take off services willy-nilly, without reference to or proper consultation on the needs of communities. On some roads, operators impose too many bus services—more than the community or the roads can bear—because it suits their interests. On top of that, they schedule services to compete with each other. One bus arrives ahead of the next one so, frequently, three or four buses will come down the road at the same time, after which there will be a gap of 15 or 20 minutes, because the bus operators want to compete with each other, rather than meet the needs of the people.
If we are to have competition, we need competition on things that matter to people. Why not have competition on fares? As Charlie Gordon said, the reality is that the monopolies that exist in many towns and the suburban areas that surround them mean that fares increase and are higher than they would be if there were a different system.
Why not have competition on journey time? We are supposed to have that, so why are buses taking so long to get from one part of a city to another? It can take an hour and a half to go from Clydebank to East Kilbride. The journey could be made in less than an hour if the buses took the most direct routes.
Bus deregulation is not working for people. It does not deliver the services that people want in the places that they want them to be. It does not deliver services that go at the speed that people want. Moreover, people are paying over the odds for some services.
That is why we need bus reregulation. We need a system whereby local authorities or other bodies have levers that can force operators to provide services that people want and create barriers to operators taking services away for purely commercial reasons. We need a system in which public service obligations can be imposed. After all, we pay a substantial amount for services, through a variety of means. The operators get significant contributions from the public purse. However, the Government’s attitude appears to be that, ultimately, the market is working, when it patently is not working.
Karen Gillon talked about the 500,000 reasons why the SNP does not support bus reregulation. Rob Gibson said that bus reregulation was not in the SNP’s manifesto in 2007. However, bus reregulation was in the policy paper right up until the point at which Brian Souter’s contribution was announced. In America, they have a name for such relationships between politicians and companies that seek favours and there is a history of such relationships—I am thinking about Lyndon Johnson’s link with Brown and Root and George Bush’s link with the oil companies and Halliburton.
When companies are calling the shots, as Brian Souter appears to be doing in this context, there is an obligation on members of other parties to point out that reregulation is what people want and what the SNP is denying them.
I declare that I am president of the Scottish Association for Public Transport, which has provided a memo for members setting out a useful range of pragmatic options for improvement.
I am also, as we say in Germany, auf dem Abstellgleis. I am a retiring MSP on a one-way bus pass, which will take me either to Germany and a well co-ordinated system of public transport or to Wales, which of course has a nationalised transport system. The fact that it is nationalised by the German Government is one of the ironies of modern British politics.
That takes me back to one issue that I want to stress: we are not in command of the policy decisions that we will have to take. We face one of the most major fuel and power crises that the world has ever faced, perhaps the greatest. I can remember Suez and the Yom Kippur war; this is bigger than both. I will come back to that point at the end.
To revert to the absurdities of Mrs Thatcher, in 1985, boasting about her great car economy, she said that anyone who still used public transport at 30 was a loser. In a working life of 45 years, I have never driven and have always found an adequate bus or train system to defend or develop. The result is a minimal carbon footprint and a small or medium-sized enterprise with 15 books so far plus conferences and that sort of thing, including, of course, “Fools Gold” from 1994, which is still the only history of North Sea oil and, along with the Financial Times, my bible on fuel economics and politics. My bus-pass savings, which are an appreciable amount, have all gone to the Campaign for Borders Rail to replace the X95 bus as soon as possible with a proper Borders railway.
Looking at economic efficiency, I wonder how many bus or train trips are made per individual annually in, let us say, Edinburgh. I have heard the figure of 180 mentioned. In Zurich, it is 420 by bus, train or tram. Switzerland is an industrial and tourism success story; Scotland has problems. Of course, it is possible to work on a bus or train—I wrote this speech on the X95, which deserves an Olympic medal for computer manipulation—but it is not possible to work and drive. An automotive society is, thus, inherently less than efficient.
I sympathise naturally with the SAPT line but, as I mentioned, we have a truly gigantic crisis before us. We must think and plan further ahead. The combination of nuclear disaster and mid-east instability is sending a barrel of Brent crude above $110. In 1969, it was $1.25. We are heading for what may well be a shooting war between Egypt and Libya—members can make a choice of countries throughout that most unstable region—so matters will certainly get worse. A $150 barrel is almost certain and it could get to $250 or more—anything could be possible.
We cannot do without hydrocarbons for aviation—it is impossible to think of a plane that is powered by anything other than kerosene—sea transport and much of land freight other than electric rail. Hydrocarbons are also a crucial chemical feedstock. That role is probably even more important than their travel functions. To survive—I stress the word “survive”—we must prioritise their use, and planning should start now. One may well find that, even before the election, joint Cabinet committees are set up to determine how we can handle restricted supplies.
In landward areas, a fuel-price rebate or regulator is necessary, but we may have to link it to car sharing. We cannot rule out rationing.
I am just about to do so. In fact, I only wish that the mass of Scottish commuters would use the bus. I have statistics from the energy efficiency action plan on the travel patterns of Stirling Council members and officials, which show that 82 per cent travelled by car; 11 per cent walked or ran, which is nice to know; and 6 per cent went by bus or train. In my part of Europe, 30 per cent go by bus or train, 30 per cent walk, run or bike and the remainder, which is about 30 per cent—this is in the heartland of Mercedes Benz—drive. That is how the situation in Scotland stands. We talk about bus services, but we are not brilliant examples of their organisation.
Since mid-February, the world’s economics have changed. I have predicted the end of the age of Henry Ford and could say with the best in Scotland, “Weel, ye ken noo,” when it happens, but I will not. We have to get out of this, but we are not well placed to do so. Amazingly, London can. Through massive public investment—£170 as against every £116 invested in Scotland—it has a public transport-served central business district. We do not have that.
I have one final point, although I can see that it will not win me many friends. Friends of the Earth Scotland has called for the signing of the new Forth crossing contracts to be postponed until after the election. Having my own project—the Borders railway line—to see through, I am prepared to support any other project, although I wanted a tunnel with high-speed rail capacity. However, the new Forth crossing is a high-petrol project and the $200 barrel of oil is on its way. Do we want to die slowly by garrotte, or do we want to be guillotined? Those could be the alternatives that are in front of us. I put that quite coldly in the final speech that I will make here. We are facing a totally unprecedented environmental and fuel situation. If we do not bear that in mind when we are making our investment decisions, we are in for very big trouble indeed.
During the past four years, Christopher Harvie has made many speeches relating to peak oil, which is an issue that cannot be separated from any aspect of our transport system or any debate about how we use hydrocarbons. He has made a consistently strong case for a more planned approach to that challenge. I assure him that, if I get the chance to have anything to do with it, there will be many more speeches on the issue during the next parliamentary session.
I welcome the debate that the Labour Party has brought on the reregulation of buses, and the Labour Party’s move over the years from supporting tougher application of the existing regulatory regime to a stronger stance on reregulation.
Charlie Gordon mentioned the June 2008 debate in which Labour and the SNP backed the amendment in my name calling for a full consultation on all the options for reregulation. Although the amended motion fell, the amendment in my name passed with Labour and SNP support, so it was disappointing that, despite supporting the amendment, the SNP was not willing to act on its contents by consulting on regulation.
Ultimately, we are talking about a free-market versus a public service approach. Do we regard public transport as a public service or just as a market? I take the clear view that it is a public service. Unlike Robert Brown, I do not think that the profitability of companies in the industry is the core issue. We do not say that any other public services, such as schools or hospitals have to be profitable. We pay for those things collectively through taxation because our society is better off when we have them.
Passengers want a high-quality, affordable, convenient and clean service. Too often, certainly in my city, they have come to expect dirty and expensive services, timetables that are a joke, and bus stops with shelters that do not deserve the name and seem to have been designed for a country that has never seen rain.
Questions have been raised about whether the term “market failure” is appropriate. Honestly, I think that most of us would acknowledge that the picture is mixed. Competition has done some things well and some badly. Jackson Carlaw pointed out some of the positives in the statistics that the CPT circulated, but he was trying so hard to be a counterpoint to Charlie Gordon’s old-Labour tribute act that he became a dated Thatcher tribute act. He was, however, slightly overgenerous to the companies when he said that 75 per cent of people believe that bus services operate when they are needed. That means that one in four people disagrees. It shows a significant failure if, when asked, one in four people says that bus services do not operate when they need them, and approximately the same proportion say that fares are not good value.
Did we ask the people who are not using bus services what they think and why they do not use them? It is not enough to say that three quarters of the people who use bus services are happy with them and one quarter are not. We should look at why the great bulk of people are not happy to use bus services.
Jackson Carlaw seemed to make the bizarre and astonishing claim that we have world-class bus services—actually, looking again at my notes, I see that that is not precisely the claim that he made; he said that we have a world-class bus industry. The crucial point is that it is possible to have successful, profitable businesses in the industry and a poor-quality service. I am more interested in having a successful and attractive bus service for Scotland.
The downsides of competition include the predatory services that Charlie Gordon described and inefficiency in service design. It is not enough just to have more efficient engines and vehicles. If we want to achieve carbon reductions, we need an efficient design of the services. Older, poor-quality vehicles still run on many of our roads.
On cuts to services, there will always be some service changes, whatever the regulatory environment, but at the moment the widespread and, I think, justified feeling is that passengers’ views carry little or no weight when decisions on service changes that affect people’s lives and their quality of life are made.
Another downside is the lack of a transparent fare structure. I will give an example from Glasgow. My four-weekly bus pass costs me £33. That is perfectly affordable for someone on a good salary or a reliable monthly income, but not everyone has the freedom to make such a choice. At that rate, it costs me about £1.20 a day to use Glasgow buses, but someone who gets on a bus today and buys a daily ticket will pay nearly £4. An individual ticket is the least affordable option, but that is the one that the worst-off in our society have to take. I compare that with the flat-rate system that operates in the Lothians.
The industry will, of course, be against significant reregulation but, frankly, many bus companies operate both in strongly regulated markets and in less regulated markets. They should worry only if they feel that they cannot compete against a public sector or not-for-profit model. Instead of listening to them, we should listen to bus passengers and to the people who do not use bus services because of the quality, the cost or the availability.
I will read out some comments that have been posted online in the past few days. One person said that, although they always got on and off at the same stop, it was a different price every time. Someone else said:
“Wait 30 mins for a bus. Squeeze on amongst 2x normal amount of people. Finally get seat. Bus leaks on your head.”
Another person posted a video clip of 3 or 4in of water sloshing about on the floor of a number 38C in Glasgow.
I speak in support of the Labour motion. For the benefit of Mr Stevenson, who has now brought his bus pass back among us, the motion does not say that we intend to renationalise bus services; it says that we need
“legislation to regulate bus services in the best interests of the travelling public.”
It is clear that his party’s major donor is not all that interested in that.
As we all know, in the current climate bus operators are struggling with rising fuel costs, increased wage costs, the dire state of our roads and traffic congestion. Scottish Association for Public Transport research shows that buses are finding it hard to attract users from the 69 per cent of households in Scotland that have at least one car. It is even more difficult for them to do so from households that have two or more cars, the proportion of which rose from 18.6 per cent in 2000 to 25.6 per cent in 2009. I have no doubt that Mr Carlaw, in his previous incarnation, would have welcomed that.
Buses often appear to be more costly, slower, less comfortable and less instantly available than the car, but local buses remain the most used form of public transport in Scotland, with an average of almost 100 trips per person being made on them each year. In the three years from 2004 to 2007, the number of passenger trips increased by 10 per cent, but in the four years since then the number has again declined. I could say that that is because of four years of SNP government, but that would be unkind.
If I take the experience of my constituency of Strathkelvin and Bearsden, it is easy to see why that has happened. Constant changes to the timetable, a focus on peak-time travel rather than off-peak travel and an all-too-quick desire to axe what are deemed to be loss-making routes have left many of my constituents without a convenient bus service, especially those who live out in the villages of Torrance, Lennoxtown, Milton of Campsie and Twechar. The further reaches of Bearsden, Lenzie and Bishopbriggs have also suffered. We all know that efficiency savings are needed, but Government and local authority spending cuts could have a devastating effect on our bus services. Throughout Scotland, lifeline bus services are being axed by operators and local authorities as they try to manage damaging funding cuts.
In December last year, the bus operators were dealt another unexpected blow. At a meeting of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, discussions took place with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, John Swinney, on issues such as concessionary travel and the bus service operators grant, which Keith Brown mentioned earlier.
When Mr Swinney was questioned by my colleague Charlie Gordon, he quoted a figure of £185 million for concessionary travel, which seemed to be £5 million above the original cap that he had told the committee about in a previous evidence session, although it seems that the £5 million might be for the youth concessionary travel scheme, the ferry scheme and administration.
The figure for the bus service operators grant appears in the budget as £60.8 million, which is a drop of £5.7 million from the figure of £66.5 million that Mr Swinney had earlier given the committee. In the Official Report of 18 March 2010, the cabinet secretary said that he would
“increase the funding for the BSOG to £66.5 million a year.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2010; c 24723.]
I am not for a minute suggesting that Mr Swinney has a problem with his sums, but when he said that
“The sums on concessionary fares and the bus service operators grant that appeared in the budget are the sums that were negotiated with the bus operators as part of the Government’s approach to providing the necessary financial control that we would expect over the concessionary travel scheme”—[Official Report, Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, 7 December 2010; c 3498.]
he does not appear to have been reading from the same page as the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which had negotiated with him.
The CPT is adamant that that was not the case. Its members say:
“The budget figure for BSOG states £60.8m. The three year deal that CPT entered into with Scottish Government earlier this year was for a BSOG budget line of £66.5m. This is a £5.7m reduction on what the Scottish bus industry and Scottish Government agreed to.”
In reply to that, Mr Swinney asserted that his figures were correct. The CPT said again that when he said that the budget contains figures that reflect what he agreed with the bus industry:
“we believe Mr Swinney failed to clarify accurately in his responses ... That is patently not the case.”
They cannot both be right.
Indeed, the CPT argues that if it had known that there was to be a £5.7 million cut to the operators grant, the deal to reduce the national concessionary transport scheme from 73.6 per cent to 67 per cent would not have happened. That has taken millions out of the bus industry.
We need the bus service operators grant. Replacing the fuel duty rebate, it allows commercial and community bus operators to receive a grant based on the eligible kilometres that they operate on registered local bus services. The grant’s principal aim is to benefit passengers, which it does by helping operators to keep their fares down and to run services that might not otherwise be commercially viable, thereby contributing to the maintenance of the overall bus network.
It also contributes to the operation of community transport organisations, which allow people who cannot make use of conventional bus services to access local services such as those in the villages in my constituency. Payments to operators are calculated on the eligible kilometres that are run on local bus services, the total volume of fuel that is used and a predetermined payment rate—currently 41.2p per litre—that is set by Transport Scotland.
One other issue seems to have appeared from out of nowhere in the transport arena. Mr Swinney announced a significant increase of £7 million for the smart card programme. As Charlie Gordon inquired at the time, given that the bedding-in of the new ticketing machines for bus operators was completed by August, what was the proposed £7 million of new capital expenditure for? Mr Swinney replied that it related to software upgrades to ensure the operability of the smart concessionary travel scheme, and said that it was something that he could have done without.
We know that Mr Swinney has had problems coping with computer upgrades in the past, but the question remains: why did he not know that this one was happening? I would like to know, if Parliament agrees to that item for next year, how many years it will be before we are asked to endorse something similar.
Scotland needs quality bus services. If we are to achieve our aims on carbon emissions, a first-class public transport network is essential, and bus travel should be at the heart of that. That is why we should support Labour’s motion today.
Let me start by saying how much I have enjoyed serving alongside Charlie Gordon on the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee over the past couple of years. We do not see eye to eye on all the issues, but he certainly ensures that there is never a dull moment. Among my memories of my first session in Parliament, I will always have fond memories of our day trip to Dumfries to investigate active travel.
As an MSP for the Lothians, I am of course familiar with excellent bus services, particularly those provided by Lothian Buses. A great example is the airport link, which is equipped with spacious vehicles, comfortable seats, tranquil background music and a pleasant voice-over to detail the bus route and stops. Of course, one of the major drawbacks of the trams project is that the airport link will be—or, at least, might be—thoroughly undermined by a £500 million replacement; otherwise, why are we spending so much money on a tram that replicates its route?
I mention trams not only because members would be concerned for my health if I did not speak about them somewhere in my final speech before dissolution but because the biggest threat to the award-winning bus service in this city is the MSPs who voted through the tram project in the first place.
Having put in something about the trams, I will turn to the matter in hand: regulation. There is no doubt that Charlie Gordon is particularly keen to sort out the buses before he collects his own pass soon. The debate on regulation can be traced all the way back to Labour’s UK Government publication “From workhorse to thoroughbred” in 1999. I mean no disrespect to Mr Gordon in saying that he is probably more workhorse than thoroughbred. He has undoubtedly been persistent on the issue throughout the years, but the ideas are ill-conceived.
After a number of further consultations, the Labour-led Scottish Executive introduced the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001, which created the scheme of quality partnerships and quality contracts that Charlie Gordon is so unhappy with now.
Notwithstanding the lack of quality partnerships and quality contracts currently in place, it would be wrong to conclude that the partnership working between bus operators and local authorities is failing. Far from it; I am sure that most MSPs are well aware that there are good examples out there. As Alison McInnes has already said, agreements are being entered into, albeit on an informal rather than statutory basis.
There are undoubtedly problems in some areas. Previous members have alluded to them, but the question is how we address the problems. Why are things working better in some areas and not others? In particular, would further regulation help or hinder the process?
I have always tried to approach any idea from Charlie Gordon with an open mind, but in my opinion the case for reform has not been made—and certainly no argument has been made for the radical reform that the Labour Party appears to favour. The market is not perfect and action is required where there are problems in order to meet the needs of the travelling public, but that can be undertaken with bus operators and local authorities, backed by the Scottish Government.
A number of serious issues need to be addressed before we consider the revision of the current scheme along the lines that Charlie Gordon appears to be suggesting. The first issue is cost, as ably detailed by Stewart Stevenson. In this climate, do we want local authorities up and down the country to have to draw up appropriate tender documents and complete the tendering process? Do they have the resources to do that? What effect would that have on small and medium-sized operators? The Confederation of Passenger Transport has argued that widespread use of even the current statutory provisions on quality contracts would put such companies at risk.
How would any changes to the scheme be affected by UK competition rules? Those are, of course, reserved matters. Would the taxpayer end up having to pay compensation to bus operators that lose the right to run services on certain routes? Where would those hundreds of millions of pounds come from? I could not see the answer in today’s motion. There have not been satisfactory answers to those questions, so it has not been shown that a change to the current regime is more likely to bring about an improvement than better use of the current powers would.
Let me turn briefly to the Government’s amendment. The SNP Government has protected and extended the concessionary travel scheme while implementing changes to reimbursement rates to make it more affordable in the long term. It has invested substantially in bus services through the concessionary travel scheme, the bus service operators grant and local authority funding. Indeed, the Scottish Government has not only continued investment but overseen reform so that the operators grant encourages action from bus companies to support our climate change goals. We have also seen investment in the Scottish green bus fund, for example, and today we have the minister’s welcome announcement for Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Those achievements must be built on and developed. They contrast sharply with the uncosted, unrealistic and utterly unhelpful wish list of the Labour Party. I hoped that, at least on this issue, we could have another Labour U-turn today—that seems to be Labour’s speciality in the build-up to the election. Sadly, Labour still has its priorities wrong, which is why I strongly suspect that Charlie Gordon will not be in a position to address any of them on 6 May.
Deputy Presiding Officer, it is 17 years since you and I joined Charlie Gordon on Strathclyde Regional Council. I have known him a long time and know that he is the sort of guy who speaks his mind. If he had wanted to renationalise the bus service, he would have introduced a bill that described itself as renationalising the bus service; what he is talking about today is regulation. As he said in his opening speech, the train service is heavily regulated—for good reasons—and it is not nationalised.
No, I want to get on with what I have to say.
As the curmudgeonly Mr Carlaw reminded us, deregulation came into effect in October 1986, as part of Mrs Thatcher’s privatisation agenda. The Transport Act 1985 allowed for two types of bus service provision: the commercial service and the subsidised service; so, it is not correct to say that there is a totally free market. However, the previous requirement for the cross-subsidy of unprofitable routes by better-paying routes was transferred from the operators to the public sector through the local authorities and the passenger transport executives.
As we all know, deregulation did not result in competition delivering better services in many parts of Scotland, especially in rural areas such as Dumfries and Galloway. Larger operators have been able to dominate the market and drive out competition by, as Charlie Gordon said, running services at the same time as their smaller competitors and undercutting them on price, thereby driving them off the routes and, in some cases, out of business altogether. With no requirement for operators to cross-subsidise unprofitable routes, services to outlying rural areas and off-peak services have been cut back, forcing people in those areas to become, as Karen Gillon described, increasingly reliant on the private car whether they can afford it or not. At the moment, the cost of that to those individuals is considerable and rising, and there is also a cost to the environment.
As has been said, the Parliament has tried to regulate—not to nationalise—bus services through the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001, which enabled councils to set up statutory quality partnerships. However, the unfortunate fact is that none of those has been set up in the past 10 years. Clearly, the time is now right to take further and stronger action to deliver a bus service that serves its passengers and helps to achieve our climate change targets.
The need for reregulation was brought home to me by the experiences of many of my constituents. In December 2008, our local regional transport partnership, the south west of Scotland transport partnership, and the bus operator Stagecoach heralded proposed timetable changes on their websites as improvements; however, I discovered that the bus service for some of my constituents was being reduced from a half-hourly service to an hourly service and that elderly people living in some parts of Dumfries did not have any buses running near their houses and were having to struggle up the hill with their shopping as a result of the changes.
At the end of last year, private bus operators in Dumfries and Galloway warned SWESTRANS that they intended to increase their contract charges on some subsidised routes by up to 84 per cent, and SWESTRANS estimated that the overall cost of the subsidy would increase from £3.8 million to £6 million—an increase of 57 per cent. That means that SWESTRANS is now having to consider cutting the number of routes that it subsidises. I understand that it intended to undertake a consultation exercise in January, although I cannot find information about that on its website. The result of such cuts will be even poorer services across Dumfries and Galloway, especially in outlying areas, and increased reliance on private cars—hardly the right direction of travel, if members will excuse the pun.
At times when fuel prices are higher than they have ever been, public transport ought to be more attractive to travellers. However, in Dumfries, I see buses travelling around with three or four people in them, which provides hardly any advantage in terms of emissions.
One of the aspects of Charlie Gordon’s bill of which I was particularly supportive was his suggestion that community transport be allowed to accept concessionary bus passes. The Annandale transport initiative in my constituency has been pressing for that for years. The initiative has been around since 1999 and has a fleet of five wheelchair-accessible minibuses and two accessible cars, based in Lockerbie, Moffat and Eastriggs.
Community transport provides services in areas where regular bus services are absent or infrequent and to people who are unable to access normal services. The free bus pass is a great initiative but it is no use to a pensioner who lives in a rural area where there is no bus or to a disabled person who is unable to use the services that are available.
The transport initiative also provides a programme of day trips to older people who otherwise might become isolated. Subsidy through inclusion in the free bus pass scheme would provide a vital source of funding for community transport at a time when its funding through local authority grants is being withdrawn. The former Scottish Executive funding that, latterly, was provided through councils will cease at the end of this financial year, and the proposal would be a means to ensure that the vital services that are provided by community transport initiatives would continue.
I look forward to Charlie Gordon’s bill being introduced and passed in the next session of Parliament—hopefully as a Government bill, and maybe even with Charlie Gordon as the minister who introduces it.
I want to talk about ways in which we can make bus services more responsive to the needs of the communities that I represent in Glasgow. By more responsive I mean not just better service provision in general, but also an integrated system that will promote modal shift from car to bus and other forms of public transport.
I will illustrate my point using the example of my commute. On my return from Parliament in Edinburgh, I get off the train at Queen Street station and have a variety of choices of ways in which to make my way back to my home in Maryhill. I can go for a 10 or 15-minute walk to the bus stop and wait in the city centre for an indeterminate period of time for a bus that will provide a debatable quality of service. Alternatively, I can jump in a taxi—in bad weather, when nights are dark and when time is short, I have done that, but for many of my constituents that is an unrealistic option, due to cost, and, further, it does not meet our desire to effect a modal shift in commuter culture. My third option is to get on the subway at Buchanan Street, disembark at St George’s Cross and get a bus to Maryhill from there—indeed, when I am not pressed for time, that is my preferred option, and it represents joined-up and clever public transport provision.
That option best sums up an integrated transport network—a journey using train, subway and bus seamlessly. That is the vision that we all strive and aspire to achieve. However, the issue with that option is that the infrequency and the overcrowding of the subway service make it an undesirable option for many. However, that will all change, and I am proud that an SNP Government has committed public funding to the full modernisation of the subway system. I am proud of how the SNP has delivered for Glasgow on that front.
That financial commitment will deliver new rolling stock, refurbished stations and an integrated ticketing network across all public modes of transport. That will drive integrated provision, with buses at new key interchanges, such as St George’s Cross, and buses being taken outwith the city centre and not having to start their journey in the city centre in the first place. That is what this is all about.
I see progress already, with Glasgow City Council and SPT moving to introduce a statutory quality partnership scheme for all bus services within the city boundaries. It will consider routes, waiting areas, emissions and air quality, under the current regulatory powers that exist.
We all need that can-do attitude to public transport. When Labour MSPs were standing outside underground stations with petitions for subway modernisation, I was meeting the former transport minister, Stewart Stevenson, with that can-do attitude, and when they were putting out alarmist press releases, I was meeting the new transport minister, Keith Brown. When they were talking complete nonsense, I was meeting the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth, John Swinney, to discuss how we could secure financial funding. When they were full of bluff, bluster and alarm, we were delivering on public transport for Glasgow. The SNP has a can-do attitude, and we will deliver further using the regulatory powers that we have and by working in partnership with bus companies and representatives of other forms of transport.
I urge members to support the amendment in the name of Keith Brown.
The debate has been interesting. A number of strands have run through it, and a number of interesting speeches have been made.
The debate started with Charlie Gordon’s long-held and robust views on the reregulation of transport, although that required to be redefined as the debate progressed.
I worried for a moment that Jackson Carlaw was going to read to us passages from Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs. Instead, he chose to quote Alison McInnes extensively. That was undoubtedly the best part of his speech.
Karen Gillon made an unusual and typically interesting speech. However, I say to her that people must think carefully about how value added tax works before it is claimed as a weapon that would improve a commercial organisation which balances its VAT inputs against its VAT outcomes. If it is able to trade those off, whether or not the VAT rate is changed will certainly not make any difference to its performance.
Karen Gillon expressly made a point about the tax on fuel for bus companies.
Stewart Stevenson declared his interest as a bus pass holder. I did not quite catch the next bit of what he said, but it is impossible for us not to believe that he will say in his memoirs that he was also a bus driver. Those of us who have listened to his extensive speeches in recent years will find it impossible not to believe that he has held that important office.
I am grateful to Rob Gibson for making an important point about the integration of passenger services. I come from the west of Scotland. There is no doubt that, in its earlier days, Strathclyde Passenger Transport made vast improvements in the co-ordination of transport but, unfortunately, that has drifted in recent years. I thought that Rob Gibson’s suggestions about using alternative transport and fleets of transport—he referred to ambulances—were not daft at all.
It is interesting that the dreadful word “money” was not mentioned until Shirley-Anne Somerville spoke. I congratulate her on pointing out that much had been said by the proposer of the motion, but nobody had attempted to suggest that the proposal would cost anything. Indeed, it became necessary for David Whitton and Elaine Murray to slightly redefine what exactly was meant and to ensure that we understood that we are talking not about nationalisation but about regulation. I am bound to say that there is only one inference to be drawn from the speeches of all the principal Labour spokespeople—Karen Gillon, Elaine Smith, Des McNulty, David Whitton and Elaine Murray. They all talked about radical service improvements, routes that are apparently not profitable and better and more frequent services, but nobody told us how the proposals would be funded or how much they would cost.
The restraints that some speeches suggested should be placed on operators might be justified in an esoteric sense, but the Labour Party has come to Parliament, when we have just had our budget discussions, with proposals that it at no point said massive reserves should be put aside to fund. It is all very well for Karen Gillon and I to disagree on where VAT will come from, but the much more important point is that nobody on the Labour benches has told us how the proposals would be funded. It is not clear to me how they would be funded or if they are capable of being funded at all, but perhaps Charlie Gordon will devote the major part of his winding-up speech to detailing all the undertakings that Labour members have given on improvements in their constituencies and to telling us how much each one would cost and what the total bill for the regulation he suggests would be.
At the heart of the debate has been the total rejection of any sense that the current regulations might be improved or made to operate better. There was recognition that the 2001 act makes a number of provisions. However, because those have not worked, Labour members argue that we need more regulation. The previous regulation did not work, so what is the new regulation that is suggested? We heard that it means that every route will be near perfect, but at no additional cost, which seems implausible.
We should concentrate on the outcome that we seek. The market is not an entirely free one, as substantial sums of public money are invested in our public transport and in subsidising bus services. Opportunities exist to make further progress on improving access to bus services, encouraging modal shift and reducing congestion. Those issues can be addressed within the current framework, as Alison McInnes eloquently set out in her opening speech. There is a line of travel that would operate within the current framework and would not commit us to the massive extra public expenditure that is not mentioned in the Labour motion. I listened closely to the arguments that were adduced in support of that motion and found that they all undermined it and made it completely implausible, given the financial commitment that the Labour Party made this morning.
The debate has been interesting and it has been one of the more informative of its kind. I say “informative”, because members have talked about their experiences locally, and it seems that those experiences differ radically in different areas of the country. Another aspect of the debate is that it has been characterised by comparisons between individuals. In the previous speech, we heard what I believe was a comparison between Alison McInnes and Margaret Thatcher. It will be no surprise if that does not appear in Alison McInnes’s election leaflets during the forthcoming election. I am not exactly sure what was happening there.
Earlier, we heard comparison of Charlie Gordon to Mick Jagger. I do not know exactly where my colleague Jackson Carlaw got that from, but I take it that he believes that Charlie Gordon is one of the cheerleaders for the good old-fashioned Labour tradition in Scotland. I have great respect for Charlie Gordon, as he has been that to me for as long as I have known him and since he came to the Parliament. I feel a certain affinity with him, because I believe that I am on the same wing of the Conservative Party, if members know what I mean. Charlie and I have common ground. I will explain that a little, because I see Charlie indicating that it has gone over his head: when we accused him of being a dinosaur, I felt a certain affinity with him in that respect.
On buses and bus regulation, it would be irresponsible not to repeat the point that Scotland’s bus industry—yes, it is an industry—is an enormous success story. Since deregulation, two of the largest transport companies in the world have taken root in Scotland. They have grown and spread internationally to become major players in their industry. We should understand that and be grateful for it. Such success stories are hard to come by, so I welcome them. However, I do not accept that deregulation has caused market failure.
Bus services are provided over large areas of Scotland in a way that statistics indicate many passengers consider acceptable. In fact, the figures that Jackson Carlaw quoted earlier make it clear that there is a high level of satisfaction across the board. I am aware, though, that there will never be 100 per cent satisfaction because a complex system like a bus system will never satisfy every individual: there will always be someone who wants a change or improvement. However, I get letters regularly from people who have experienced changes or improvements but who want things to go back to the way they were. Perhaps they reflect Labour’s policy on the issue.
Let us look at some of the detail of the debate. Stewart Stevenson made it clear that there is no free ticket or bus pass to reregulation of the buses. Reregulation would cost a considerable amount of money, but Labour has been unable to tell us from where it would source it. Rob Gibson pointed out that there are huge opportunities in the current system to create efficiencies in public transport, especially in rural areas, where ideas such as demand-responsive travel, combining of public transport with some of the ambulance service’s responsibilities and improving timetabling can make a massive difference to delivering quality public transport without necessarily increasing the cost.
Alison McInnes talked at length about how the existing system can be exploited to change bus services for the better. She explained how she, like me, has been involved with individuals who want changes, and that if we address such issues with the bus companies we can often successfully achieve our objective. In contrast, Des McNulty seems to understand the process but believes that it cannot work unless we move to reregulation.
It has been asked whether the Labour Party is talking about reregulation or nationalisation. I accept that what Labour has said today is about reregulation. However, Labour back benchers have called for renationalisation of the railways. I recognise the differing language of the Labour front benches and back benches in that regard. Someone suggested that Charlie Gordon would never call for renationalisation of the buses, but I suggest that he would if he could, but perhaps understands that the time is not right.
Of all the things that we have learned during the debate, the one that concerns me is the uneven nature of services and how the current system appears to work well in some places but not in others. The buses in places such as Aberdeen and Edinburgh are modern and clean, and the services are efficient and achieve their objectives. However, people have talked about the poor quality of bus services in Glasgow. I have no personal experience of that, because I do not travel on the buses in Glasgow. However, I worry that there seems to be a stark contrast between what happens in Aberdeen and Edinburgh under the current system and what happens in Glasgow. I suggest that the evidence of Aberdeen and Edinburgh indicates that it is not reregulation that is necessary in Glasgow.
If there is extra time, I will use it to finish my speech. [Laughter.]
There is also a problem in rural areas. I know from experience what it is like to rely on bus services in a rural area. There is a problem with many services in rural areas because the roads are of poor quality and, because there is a large number of roads, many people are not right beside the bus route. Consequently, access to bus routes is always a difficulty.
I will finish on the questions that Des McNulty asked. Why do people not use the buses? Why do bus services take so long? It is because buses stop to pick people up and set people down. Buses do not provide a service that runs from the point where a passenger gets on directly to the point where they get off. Buses provide a different type of service for the people who use them. They use the busy high street rather than the dual carriageway, because bus passengers want to be picked up on the busy high street.
Like Jackson Carlaw, I wondered what Labour would use its last party debate of the parliamentary session to discuss. I thought that, in one sense, it would be good to hear a detailed explication of Labour’s somersault on the council tax freeze, or perhaps to hear about which bus Andy Kerr was on when its destination was the closing down of Monklands hospital and it turned out to be a staunch defender of the hospital. It was with some surprise but also some pleasure that I noticed that the debate was to be on transport, and specifically on buses.
On whether Charlie Gordon is a workhorse or a cart-horse—sorry, I mean a thoroughbred—I would certainly go as far as to say that he is nobody’s fool. I accept that point. However, transport is a problem for Labour when it comes to U-turns, because it is very difficult to do a U-turn on a bus, even though Labour’s policies these days appear to be like the wheels on a bus—they go round and round.
Alison McInnes made some substantive points that are reflected in the Lib Dem amendment, and I agree with many of the points that she made. However, on the bus route development grant, the Lib Dems cannot one week argue for localism and the next week argue for nationalisation if they want to retain credibility. We have retained the bus route development grant. The money is still there and we believe that it is best delivered by local authorities.
During the debate I was reminded of an old programme called “On The Buses”. I worked out who was Stan Butler and who was Blakey. I will not go so far as to say who was Olive Rudge—most of us will remember Olive.
There has been a surreal element to the debate because, as Ross Finnie said, at no point has any detail been given about what reregulation would mean. There was certainly a shrinking back from the idea of nationalisation, but no price tag was put on the policy, which gave the debate a surreal flavour, particularly when Labour Party members spoke.
Under the previous Labour Government there was a good bus service in Edinburgh, but in West Lothian and some rural areas there were huge gaps in provision; it was good in some areas but not so good in others. That will probably always be the case and we have to keep an eye on how we can improve services.
Charlie Gordon did not take any interventions from me.
Paul Martin’s puerile and spurious point of order, when he objected to my going for a drink of water during a two and a half hour debate, will be of interest to my trade union colleagues. It was also an interesting insight into the Labour Party.
There have been some very good speeches. As was mentioned, this is the last time Christopher Harvie will have the chance to address the Parliament in such a debate. As ever, his speech was very interesting and its Germanic content was as high as ever. Based on my four years in the Parliament, I say that it is certainly the case that it will be a much less pleasant place without people such as Christopher Harvie in it.
Rob Gibson made a very good speech. He pointed out that it is possible for people to take pleasure in the fact that Stagecoach is a huge international company while also saying—as some people feel—that the company is not getting it right in a particular area. That is perfectly legitimate. It is true that in some rural areas people have objections to the service that it provides.
Bob Doris gave a very good account of how the modernisation of the subway will lead to a massive improvement in transport in Glasgow, but he also pointed out—
We have said to SPT that we expect a cost of about £300 million and that we will support it on the project. Robert Brown knows full well that doubt still exists about the capital programme in the future. That must be sorted out. However, we—unlike previous Administrations—have said that we will in principle provide support.
Bob Doris’s key point was that integration is critical. He was right to say that. We must do things to continue to improve on that.
It has been said that the Labour Party’s proposal is nationalisation, but the simple fact is that we do not know whether that is the case, because the Labour Party’s motion does not contain enough detail. Perhaps we will get that detail when Charlie Gordon sums up; the proposal could be nationalisation.
Ross Finnie was wrong—money was mentioned long before Shirley-Anne Somerville’s speech. Stewart Stevenson mentioned a figure of £750 million, which is a conservative estimate of the cost of some forms of reregulation. We are interested in whether the Labour Party will put a figure on its proposal.
David Whitton appeared to say that we should give local authorities more money, even though we have given them a bigger share of our budget than the Labour Party did when it had the chance to allocate funds. Where would the money come from to give local authorities more money and to spend up to £1 billion or £750 million on bus reregulation? Will he explain where the cuts would be made? He will not have the chance to respond, but perhaps Charlie Gordon can give an explanation. Motions should not simply be lodged with absolutely no information about how proposals would be funded. That shows that what is being done is more gesture politics than anything else.
When substantial changes in how the bus industry works in Scotland are contemplated, we must be clear about how they would affect not just bus services but the Government’s overall finances. As I said, we provide significant funding of £240 million to the Scottish bus industry under BSOG and the concessionary travel scheme. That will be maintained in 2010-11. Of course, the Labour Party voted against that £240 million, and against the concessionary travel scheme and BSOG in the budget—[Interruption.] Well, it has been said that we voted against not increasing VAT, but we have made it perfectly clear that we support retrenchment from that position.
In addition to monetary support to the bus industry, we have provided a suite of guidance in consultation with local authorities, to enable them to develop and sustain local bus service provision through our on-going dialogue with the CPT. Since the time that David Whitton mentioned, I have met the CPT. The position is complex, but I am happy to give him full details in writing.
No—I said that I would write to David Whitton.
The CPT is happy with the position on the national concessionary travel scheme and the bus service operators grant, but it is important to try to bear down on a demand-led budget. John Swinney has done that very satisfactorily, at the same time as reaching agreement with the CPT.
On the concessionary travel scheme, it would be interesting to hear Charlie Gordon take another chance, which might be his final one, to say whether Richard Simpson’s position of starting to demolish the scheme is Labour’s view, or whether Charlie Gordon takes a different position. Perhaps he can outline that in summing up.
In our tenure in office, we have provided a platform from which Scottish bus operators could plan for the future free from unnecessary red tape. We accept that some regulation is required, and regulation currently exists, but we have managed to provide a platform as others have looked to tighten the public purse. We have overwhelming stats to demonstrate that Scottish bus passengers appreciate the services that they receive. Support and working with others are far better ways to provide effective bus services than is reregulation, as proposed by Labour.
I always like to give transport ministers credit where it is due and I have done that since Keith Brown took over his job. I will not criticise him for not taking an intervention from Karen Gillon, because I think he is feart of her. To be fair, so am I. However, he rather phoned in his opening speech. He said that the Government’s role was to set the policy framework. He said that there is an open market in bus services, but I provided third-party evidence of market failure. He said that buses should compete with the car. They should, but they hardly ever do so.
Keith Brown mentioned quality tools, including statutory quality partnerships, but no partnership has been signed in 10 years. He mentioned third-party bus-lane enforcement, which is important in our cities. I hope that he will answer my written question on that before dissolution. He said that the Competition Commission is the available remedy, but we should sort out the situation under devolution; transport is devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
I will clear up the point about Richard Simpson again, although I have cleared it up in correspondence with the minister. At a public debate, Richard Simpson gave the Labour line that no change should be made to the free bus travel scheme. However, like many other individuals of his age, he mused on the fact that he is a well-off man who gets to travel for nothing on the buses.
Jackson Carlaw outed me as being out of date. That is fair enough. He cannae see it from where he is sitting, but I am actually wearing flared trousers and platform soles. He then rather undermined his effect by saying that what we have to do is to get back to Maggie Thatcher. I am grateful to him for that, because Maggie Thatcher is not out of date in Scotland; she was just never supported as being relevant by the people of Scotland. I am also grateful to Jackson Carlaw for reminding the chamber of Alison McInnes’s view of my bus bill. Alison has the haunted look of a prisoner of the Thatcherites. She gave me a row earlier and said that I should work with bus operators. I assure her that I have signed more voluntary bus partnerships than she has had hot dinners.
Karen Gillon outed herself as a Cliff Richard fan—clearly, that is a case of too much information—and went on to give real examples of the human cost of market failure in local bus markets. My old conscientious adversary Stewart Stevenson let his standards slip today in setting up a couple of straw men. He said that I was out to renationalise the bus industry. No, I am not, and neither am I out to recreate municipal bus operators nor to create or replicate the bureaucratic and expensive Transport for London model, which I went down to London to have a close look at some years ago. As I thought I had made it plain in the debate, I want to amend the Transport (Scotland) Act 2001 to make it easier to implement statutory quality contracts, because that will pave the way for cross-subsidisation, which I see as a key feature of the regime.
Rob Gibson made the point—to be fair, it was an aside—that bus reregulation was not in the last SNP manifesto. Here is a quotation from the SNP national conference of October 2006:
“The SNP recognises the failures of bus deregulation across Scotland and reiterates its support for re-regulation of Scottish buses.”
Who is U-turning now?
I have already touched on the financial effect that I want to see from the type of reregulation that I advocate.
In fairness to Rob Gibson, who is a thoughtful contributor at the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, he rightly made the point that integration of transport modes is not reflected in his part of rural Scotland. He made points, on which I have already advocated, on the possibility of integrating community and commercial bus provision. He described a realistic local picture.
Robert Brown said that statutory quality partnerships have been successful. As I have made plain, not one has ever been signed and implemented. Des McNulty gave a good case study. Chris Harvie was Chris Harvie; he did not say much about buses today, but I for one will buy his new book. Here is a first: Patrick Harvie was right. Enough said.
David Whitton made important and challenging points—points that were a bit too challenging for the minister—on the structure of the bus service operators grant, which is a very important system that must not be interfered with lightly. Shirley-Anne Somerville confessed that she enjoyed serving on the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee with me. When I heard that, I thought that she would next say, “Charlie’s an oldie, but a goodie”, but it turns out that I am a workhorse, not a thoroughbred. I thank Shirley-Anne for reminding the chamber that I will be 60 in October, but 60 is just a number; there is life in this old workhorse yet. She said that I had not made the case for reform. I am not the only one who is making it; lots of third parties are making the same case.
Elaine Murray invited you, Presiding Officer, to endorse her view that you had served with this old workhorse before, when we were on Strathclyde Regional Council. I can look back on what we did on the transport scene, including on buses, with a great deal of pride and satisfaction. In many respects, it is not a bad benchmark for other parts of Scotland.
Ross Finnie misrepresented Karen Gillon on VAT. She would not have made the point that he claimed that she made on VAT in relation to buses, because VAT is reclaimable for fuel use in the bus industry.
Ross Finnie was on stronger ground when he praised the achievements of the former Strathclyde Passenger Transport Authority and Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive. I am one of the SPTA’s former chairs, so I thank the member for that. He banged on about how the proposal would be paid for; I have covered that point.
Overall, it has been a good debate. For a number of years, I have felt that politicians from all parties and at most levels have been substantially disconnected from ordinary people’s concerns about the relative importance of bus services. Today’s debate has been an important opportunity to reconnect with that agenda. There is a big dividing line between Labour and the anti-reregulation parties in the chamber today. On this issue, as on so much else, it will soon be going Labour’s way.
11:37 Meeting suspended.
11:39 On resuming—