We are committed to improving rural transport. That is reflected in our ambitious plans to dual both the A9 and the A96, in major investments such as the Borders railway, in on-going subsidies of more than £1,000 million per annum for public transport and other sustainable options generally, and in periodic reviews of our legislation, strategies and policies, such as the current review of the national transport strategy.
I asked my initial question because two weeks ago, a local bus service that runs from Brechin—which is my home town, in my constituency—to Montrose was cut. Not only was it a valuable service for people who commute to work, but it ran at key times for people who commute from Montrose railway station, which is on the main east coast rail link between Aberdeen and London.
Rural communities have also been impacted badly by bank closures and by the fact that not all towns have jobcentres and other services, so does the Scottish Government recognise the need to support and preserve rural transport links?
Mairi Evans mentioned a number of things that are absolutely essential to rural life. What she describes causes real problems for her constituents and others, so she is right to do so.
We take the issue extremely seriously. We provide subsidy for bus services through the bus service operators grant, which is paid to operators to help them to keep fares down. For 2017-18, we have increased that budget to £53.5 million. Very substantial funding is given to help local rural transport in particular.
For older people in rural areas, community and charity buses are often the only direct links to healthcare and other vital services. Does the cabinet secretary support calls from the Conservative Party for access to such services to be increased by extending the free bus pass scheme to community transport?
I certainly recognise the substantial contribution that is made by community bus services—none more so than those in the Strathspey area, where the scheme is, I believe, an exemplar. We would all wish such schemes to flourish and continue, because they provide a very useful service to a great many people in rural Scotland. We therefore support the aims and aspirations that lie behind the question, and I will be very happy to consider any specific and coherent policy suggestions that any member might have.