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Our position has not changed in that I have no plans for wholesale re-regulation but I want to see closer partnership working between operators and transport authorities. We will shortly bring forward legislation to make changes to the registration of bus services, and that will provide an opportunity for those in the sector to demonstrate how they can work together to better manage changes to the bus network.
I thank the minister for that answer, but I find it very disappointing. I am sure that I am not the only constituency or list MSP whose communities have been blighted over the years by the relatively fast withdrawal of bus services from local communities, including most recently the M3 and 10 buses in my constituency. It seems to me that transport authorities are also hidebound in this regard, because their current guidance means that they have no opportunity to intervene when there is another or a similar service operating in the area, which is the case with the two services that I mentioned.
I ask the minister to think again. If he is not content to have, as he described it, “wholesale re-regulation”, perhaps he could look at another model that might give communities the opportunity to have a say in the decisions that are being made that so badly affect them.
I have outlined proposals that will assist in relation to bus services throughout Scotland. There is already provision in legislation for quality contracts, which involve local franchising, and quality bus partnerships. In addition, local transport strategies can be addressed through strengthened community planning.
I disagree with the member’s point that there is no opportunity to intervene. If there is assessed social need, local transport authorities can intervene and implement subsidised services. The legislative change that I am proposing involves better engagement with local authorities in the assessment of transport changes through bus regulation, and I am sure that that will be welcomed by the whole Parliament.
On wholesale re-regulation, if Patricia Ferguson is disappointed in my answer, I am sure that she will be equally disappointed in her colleague Iain Gray, who abandoned his bill. It was apparently about re-regulation but, as with many things in the Labour Party, it was not quite what it said on the tin. David Stewart brokered a meeting between me and Iain Gray, and I was happy to be supportive to strengthen the legislation, but Mr Gray withdrew his bill.
I will do what I can through grant conditions, transport strategies, strengthened community planning and the national transport strategy to support local communities working in partnership with the bus industry, rather than bringing the kind of volatility that I think the Labour Party would wreak on Scotland’s public transport system.
Is it not the case that re-regulation would cost more than three quarters of a billion pounds and that it is the height of cynicism for the Labour Party to suggest such a thing when it knows that the comprehensive spending review is likely to lead to further cuts to an already diminished Scottish budget?
Mr Gibson is right in the respect that wholesale re-regulation or indeed renationalisation would be incredibly expensive. However, as with its proposition on the railways, Labour says that it is talking about renationalisation but it turns out that what it says is not necessarily what it does. It did not deliver re-regulation in administration and it is not even proposing it now in opposition, having abandoned its bill.
That is why we will take the right pragmatic and practical steps to support local communities in engaging changes to bus services while maintaining the national concessionary travel scheme, the bus service operators grant and other measures to try to support accessibility and connectivity right across the country, and we will do so in partnership with the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK. Those are the conditions that will lead to enhanced public transport in Scotland.
As the minister hinted, there is a suite of options with which local authorities can improve bus services, including quality partnerships, quality contracting and punctuality improvement plans. When did the Government last review the take-up of those mechanisms? How many take-ups have there been? Does the minister plan to review or refresh the bus strategy generally?
The good news is that, yes, a refresh of the national transport strategy is under way as we speak. I have set a very challenging timescale for it to be concluded by Christmas. Within that refresh there will be the imminent legislative and regulatory changes that I have proposed, which will be shared with the chamber. The national transport strategy review must prioritise bus transport if we want to get a modal shift from the car to public transport.
I am disappointed that local authorities and transport partnerships have not taken up quality bus partnerships and quality contracts. If I can make it easier for them to do that, I will, but sometimes the issue is about resource, not regulation. There are the tools to do the job at local level, and local authorities need to seize those opportunities and make things happen to help to address need. Those kinds of practical measures—not blanket wholesale re-regulation—will make the difference, because they can be done, and they can be done now.
It is regrettable that the issue is seen as just another example of Labour-Scottish National Party rivalry. If we look around Europe and the countries that enjoy the excellent public transport provision that Scotland deserves but does not have, one thing is clear: those countries regulate firmly, subsidise—not just at the margins—and recognise that a free-market approach involving the private sector alone does not deliver the goods.
Around 45 per cent of total bus income is public sector subsidy. We can do more on integrated transport, smart cards, partnership and local connections, and all that work is under way. I disagree that wholesale re-regulation is the answer when there is a suite of actions that will improve bus patronage in Scotland.
We should celebrate the positives and empower people at the most local level to address social need where necessary. It is my job to ensure that the conditions are there to do that, which is exactly why we are refreshing the national transport strategy. We are making it clear to local authorities that they have the power to take action now to address need in a pragmatic and positive way.
I have been contacted by many constituents in Renfrewshire, which is an area that I and the minister represent, who are concerned about the high price of bus fares and the lack of services, particularly in the evening. I have also been contacted by bus passengers in Clydebank who are dismayed that they cannot get a direct bus to the new Queen Elizabeth university hospital. Some pensioners have to get three buses to travel just 7 miles for a hospital appointment.
If the minister will not regulate the bus industry—clearly he will not—what will he do to address those problems, which bus users face daily?
I do not think that Neil Bibby has been listening to me. I have outlined the actions in the national transport strategy, including quality contracts and quality bus partnerships, and I have outlined the investments and subsidies that we are making. In my previous answer I outlined how, if there is social need, local authorities and transport partnerships can address that, and how they can address wider issues around the personalised journey, including the contacts that can be made through Traveline Scotland to support that. In addition, we make fantastic investment into public transport, including the bus industry, of more than £1 billion every year.
Neil Bibby sounded disappointed that I am not re-regulating. He will be disappointed that even the Labour Party is no longer proposing re-regulation, as Iain Gray has abandoned the bill that was going to do that very thing. We will get on with the job of ensuring that there is satisfactory public transport and we will sustain the very impressive record of infrastructure investment that far surpasses anything that the previous Administration was able to deliver.