Here is a bit of background to the debate: in 1984, the United Kingdom Government published a white paper entitled “Buses”—good title. That resulted in the Transport Act 1985, which provided for deregulation of the bus industry.
The proposals were designed to remove restrictions on competition from local and long-distance bus services. It is important to understand the background against which the proposals came forward. The following quotation is attributed to the Prime Minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher:
“A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.”
The Scottish Green Party wants a lot more failures, because we want there to be a considerable increase in the number of passengers on buses.
Despite that context, the 1985 act recognised the need for subsidised services to continue on many routes, and a system of competitive tendering for such services was proposed. It is a fact that nearly 20 per cent of routes are subsidised.
It was believed that competition would deliver lower fares, new services and more passengers. Let me deal with those objectives individually. First, on fares, in the decade between 2005 and 2015, fares increased by 13.5 per cent above inflation. On new services, it is widely recognised that the number of services has reduced. As for new passengers, in the same decade, the number of passengers decreased from 460 million to 414 million—a 10 per cent fall. Indeed, the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK told us recently that the number of bus trips in 2015-16 was 409 million—43 million fewer than in 2011, five years previously.
The decline in Scotland is greater than it is elsewhere in the UK and contrasts with the 16 per cent increase in passenger numbers on trains over the five years to 2016. There might be a reason for that. Citizens Advice Scotland told us in a recent report that two thirds of Scots are dissatisfied with the frequency of local bus services, with half of its respondents saying that services are late.
Moreover, successive Governments have spent millions on motorways, and transport ministers, including the current incumbent, are never shy about hailing growth in our railways, which of course Greens welcome, and growth in our airports and air passenger numbers, which we do not. Meanwhile, Governments have neglected bus users.
There is an opportunity to reverse the decline, which I am sure that the transport minister wants to grasp. In the consultation document “Local bus services in Scotland—Improving the framework for delivery”, the minister acknowledges:
“the sector faces significant challenges with the overall number of passenger journeys decreasing and service cutbacks in some places which can leave communities without a public transport option. We believe that the legislative framework governing bus services requires improvement”.
In 2013, Iain Gray lodged a member’s bill proposal which, unfortunately, did not succeed. In the consultation document on his proposed bus regulation bill, he said:
“Good public transport—effective, reliable, safe, and affordable—is a hallmark of a modern, forward-looking society. It liberates people who cannot drive and provides a practical alternative to those who choose not to.”
On the question of buses versus trains, the transport minister has acknowledged that buses are able to serve a much wider area than rail, which is more restricted by geography and fixed infrastructure. Bus services are flexible and can be developed into use quickly when demand is identified.
In the short time that I have, I will not go into what is required to provide a bus service. However, there are issues to do with the operator’s licence, the notice that is given prior to operation, whether there are any variations and the role of the transport commissioner.
It is important to say that local authorities can subsidise only socially desirable services that are not covered by commercial services that are registered with the traffic commissioners. When a local authority proposes subsidising a socially necessary service, it must hold a competitive tendering before establishing the service. The Transport (Scotland) Act 1989 required local authorities to incorporate their municipal bus operations as arm’s-length companies, but it did not specifically require them to be privatised. Much is made of a very successful model, which is that of Lothian Buses. I know that my colleagues will talk about that company, which runs a successful and profitable operation. Fairly recently, it took over services in East Lothian and there, again, it has been a major success.
However, there has been no legislative action on the regulation of bus services since the enactment of the Transport Act (Scotland) 2001. The programme for government 2016-17 states:
“As part of our preparation for a Transport Bill later in the Parliament, during 2016-17 we will ... work with stakeholders to develop legislative options for improving bus services and securing nationwide multi modal smart ticketing.”
Sadly, the Scottish Government is failing on its targets. It is failing on congestion, modal shift and air quality. We are keen that the national indicators should inform some of the decisions that will be made, because the Government tells us that they
“enable us to track progress towards the achievement of our National Outcomes and ultimately the delivery of the Purpose.”
If we had better bus services, we would improve traffic congestion and improve people’s perception of their neighbourhoods. In the Government’s information, under the heading “Why is this National Indicator important?”, it states:
“Our satisfaction with our neighbourhoods has an important influence on the overall quality of our lives.”
Under the heading “What will influence this National Indicator?”, it states:
“Satisfaction and dissatisfaction with our neighbourhoods is governed by a wide range of factors including: the local physical environment” and the
“convenience of services such as shops and public transport”.
We know that just under a third of households in Scotland do not have access to a car, and that the bus industry receives nearly £300 million in subsidies from local authorities and the Scottish Government. However, in real terms that funding has dropped—it is 8 per cent lower than it was five years ago. As I said earlier, nearly 20 per cent of bus journeys are subsidised, so it is entirely reasonable to have a target on increasing bus usage. We already have times and targets in relation to climate change.
What could a target look like? The information is already available, as the minister knows, with his transport statistics on bus usage. By “bus usage”, we mean journey numbers. It is certainly open to the minister to use another metric, if that is more desirable, but the important thing is that we turn the decline that we all see, and which is very evident everywhere, into growth.
What is the justification for a high-level target? As I said, it is very clear that buses stand out as the only transport type that is in decline. I accept that the solution that we produce will be complex, with bus companies, local authorities and the Scottish Government needing to work together.
Making this work will require clear ambition. It is fair to say that the solution will be different in different parts of the country. All of that can be accommodated under a high-level statutory target. It would fit well with other targets on inclusive communities, connectivity, anti-poverty, air pollution, domestic manufacturing and climate change.
Ministers have already said that they want to increase bus usage, so let us make that clear in a target. More important, let us make that happen.
That the Parliament believes that coordinated action is needed to deliver cheaper fares, more routes and reliable services to make buses a practical option for more people and communities across Scotland, and calls on the Scottish Government to set a statutory target in its forthcoming transport bill to reverse the decline in bus usage.
I welcome this important debate, which brings a focus to one of the key modes in our sustainable transport mix. Given that 75 to 80 per cent of all public transport journeys are made by bus, which far outweighs the percentage for any other mode of public transport, buses probably do not get the coverage that they should get in comparison with those other modes.
I agree with John Finnie that we must urgently tackle the decline in patronage. Of course, the decline in passenger numbers is not a recent issue. I have just been looking at the numbers, and I see that the downward trend began in the 1960s. There are a range of causes for it, some of which John Finnie touched on. Some of the factors were identified in a recent KPMG study that was commissioned by CPT. It contains a long list of issues including the long-term growth in car ownership, behavioural changes related to use of the internet, and out-of-town shopping. Another major factor that all members will recognise is congestion, which is a real issue, particularly but not only in our conurbations.
My view on how to approach the patronage challenge differs slightly from John Finnie’s, although, when I look at his motion and at what I know is important to him in facing down the challenge, I see that the differences are only minor. I do not agree that a centralised, national approach would necessarily be the right way, nor do I think that a big increase in public ownership is necessarily the answer. The graph of patronage decline between 1960 and 1986, when we had deregulation, shows a decline of 1,000 million bus passengers in Scotland alone, so it is clear that public ownership in itself is not a panacea.
I recognise the latter point. On the member’s first point, I hope that my amendment improves on his motion, because it makes it more explicit and clear that it is perhaps better for services to be determined at the local level. The member referred to Lothian Buses. When I speak to people across the country, some see the Lothian Buses model as attractive, but many others do not feel that it would be the right model to choose.
It is not for central Government to dictate how people should get around or how transport authorities should help them to do so, but we want authorities to have the right tools. The upcoming transport bill will give local authorities the tools that they need to—we hope—increase patronage. Our proposed new partnership model is being developed to give a statutory framework for transport authorities and bus operators to work together on a legally backed agreement without the cumbersome burden that some of the current mechanisms place on them.
At the heart of our proposals is local franchising, which I know a number of local authorities are interested in. We must ensure that the appropriate checks and balances are in place, but I see and hear a lot of excitement about that proposal, and I am keen to hear member’s views on it.
Another proposal is to give local authorities the right to run their own municipally owned bus companies. We want to remove the legal dubiety about whether local authorities have that power. Most recently, Aberdeen City Council wrote to me on that issue, because of its clear interest. If people look at the current local factors with regard to Aberdeen’s bus service, they will see why that power would be of interest to the council. That will be at the heart of our proposals in the transport bill, as will open data and smart ticketing.
However, legislation will not be a silver bullet. We need local authorities to take up the options that are available to them at present. Low-emission zones will certainly be part of that, and I will talk more about our plans for LEZs when I sum up. I have heard what the Greens have said about Glasgow’s proposals not going far enough, and others have said that to me, too. I will proactively pass that feedback to Glasgow City Council, which is not yet at the end of its process.
Other legislative tools are already in local authorities’ hands. If I take Glasgow as an example again, the council has the ability to tackle on-street parking with traffic regulation orders. We know that an element of congestion is due to the level of on-street car parking, particularly in our city centres. Local authorities already have tools to tackle that issue. We will provide a legislative solution with the upcoming transport bill, on which I look forward to hearing members’ thoughts, but on the other hand, local authorities already have tools in the toolbox that could make a huge difference.
On funding, we provide more than £0.25 billion of support for bus services, as well as free bus travel for older and disabled passengers. We always work in conjunction and collaboratively with the bus industry to see where we can target and improve that funding.
We all agree on the scale of the challenge. We might disagree about how we increase patronage—frankly, how we get more bums on seats—on our cleaner and greener buses. However, we certainly all want to get to the same outcome, and I look forward to hearing what members have to say about how we achieve that.
I move amendment S5M-11289.2, to leave out from “coordinated” to end and insert:
“partnership working at national and local level is needed to deliver cheaper fares, more routes and reliable services to make buses a practical option for more people and communities across Scotland; further believes that the forthcoming transport bill is a key opportunity to set the framework for transport authorities and bus operators to work together to reverse the decline in bus usage; considers that the bill will give local authorities the flexibility to pursue partnership working, local franchising or running their own buses, allowing them to better respond to local needs, and further considers that the proposed new statutory partnership model should allow transport authorities to set their own objectives for the good of their communities.”
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will attempt to use my tablet but, the last time I did that, the battery ran out halfway through my speech, so bear with me if I end up reading from paper.
I thank John Finnie for bringing the debate to the chamber. It is a very good use of his party’s business time, as it is on an important issue that is underdiscussed in the Parliament. For that reason, our amendment does not delete anything from the motion, as that would detract from and dilute the message that John Finnie wants to get across.
I, too, think that it is important that the Government is held to account for its ambitions on the issue. There has been a lot of talk about a modal shift to buses and the benefits of that, and there is nothing in that that anyone disagrees with, but we need more detail on how we measure success on that. It might be helpful if the minister could address that in the forthcoming transport bill.
I have an open mind on whether there should be a statutory target in primary legislation or whether the issue is dealt with in another way. As the additional wording that my amendment would insert in the motion says, if we can produce a measurable target in another way rather than in the transport bill—for example, in a transport strategy—we would be open to looking at that. However, it is still important that the Government is held to account on the issue. As we know, the move to buses and other public transport is part of a much wider discussion about CO2 emission reduction, reducing congestion on our roads and getting people out of cars. It is also about improving connectivity and the opportunity for towns and cities as well as for rural economies, which rely so much on lifeline services.
It is not entirely within Government control. Clearly, there are various reasons why people may or may not use a service. Does it take them from where they are to where they want to be? Can they afford it? Is it accessible, safe, reliable and frequent? A consumer or traveller thinks about a number of questions before deciding to take the car or the bus. However, the Government still has a role to play.
That takes me on to quite a philosophical debate. There are many models that we can consider for how to operate services. At one end of the spectrum, there is the model of wholly privately owned franchises, which admittedly could be subject to more rigorous tender processes. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the model of an entirely municipally owned and heavily subsidised service. Somewhere in between, there is a hybrid model that works differently in different local authority areas to meet the needs of those areas. There is a fundamental debate about what works in different parts of Scotland and, again, I am open minded on that. This discussion is a good one, and we should have more such discussions.
There is also a debate about what we consider to be a lifeline service and, if we consider something to be a lifeline service, who should shoulder the responsibility for it. Recently, Ross Greer had a members’ business debate on the removal of routes and services, the cost of tickets and changes to timetabling, and the speech that sticks in my mind is Bob Doris’s, in which he listed the huge complexities in his part of the world with the services that are available. Right across the country, w e MSPs get many representations from constituents with regard to scheduling decisions.
It is entirely appropriate for companies to operate to the best of their ability and deliver effective, reliable and affordable services, but franchises should not become mere cherry-picking exercises, where only the profitable routes are chosen and routes that I would consider to be lifeline services get taken away. I note that central Government has taken strategic decisions on other modes of transport such as aviation and ferries, and its subsidising of those services seems to be the normal thing to do.
However, having read the Government’s amendment, and thinking about what could be the direction of travel in the forthcoming transport bill, I hope that sole responsibility for delivering what we consider to be lifeline services will not be transferred to local authorities, whose budgets are already quite tight. If a local authority wants to operate a service, it should be allowed to do so, but only in the full knowledge of the consequences, the costs and the liabilities, including the pension liabilities with regard to drivers, the cost of continually upgrading the fleet in order to reduce emissions, and so on.
That said, I am very open to local authorities being able to operate services. The Lothian model has been mentioned a lot but, of course, what works for Edinburgh might not work for other parts of Scotland. We need to have this debate and discuss the options, but I hope that the proposed transport bill will not simply pay lip service to the issue, but actually address it. We need to put more pressure on the Government to deliver with regard to patronage.
I move amendment S5M-11289.3, to insert at end:
“, or via another appropriate but measurable method in relevant Scottish Government transport strategies, and calls on the Scottish Government to work with local authorities to ensure that timetabling and bus provision better meet local demands.”
I thank the Scottish Greens for bringing this important issue to the chamber.
The need for real change in Scotland’s buses is clear for everyone to see. Much of our bus network is slowly being lost, route by route. Moreover, since the Government came to power, the number of bus journeys has dropped by 17 per cent, while, at the same time, bus fares have increased by a massive 47 per cent.
Make no mistake about it: there are many reasons for that decline, but decisions that have been made by the Government have contributed, too. The bus service operators grant has been reduced by a quarter, there has been an overall 8 per cent fall in support for buses over the past five years and the eye-watering cuts to council budgets have inevitably led to bus routes losing financial support and being axed. There has also been a failure to make the necessary structural changes, with the Government opposing not one but two Labour members’ proposals to re-regulate our buses. Given that three quarters of all public transport journeys last year were made by bus, such cuts and inaction are leading to real lifeline services being removed from more and more of our communities.
It is those who can least afford it who are being disproportionately affected—young people, older adults, the unemployed, students and others on low income. They are being hit hardest by the massive fare hikes, and the axing of services often removes their only viable travel option, particularly in rural communities such as the one that I represent. It is therefore little wonder that the recent Citizens Advice Scotland report revealed that two thirds of bus travellers are unhappy with the frequency of their service and that 58 per cent have described services as poor value for money. We need real change on our buses.
I have sympathy with the Green motion, which proposes a statutory target for bus usage, and Labour will be supporting it. However, I would note that many of the legal targets that have been put in place for our national health service are never met, and any targets that are put in place must be backed by actions to deliver them.
We therefore need to have a bold rethink about how we manage bus services in Scotland, and we need to ensure that the real alternative of radical re-regulation and municipal ownership lies at the very heart of the Government’s forthcoming transport bill. Scotland has fallen behind much of the rest of the UK with regard to re-regulation, and we must wake up to the fact that the current unregulated market is simply not working. Re-regulation gives us an opportunity to start to protect the lifeline services that are currently being axed and to stop bus companies cherry picking the most profitable routes.
Re-regulation also provides a chance for us to call a halt to the race to the bottom in the treatment of staff wages. The fair work principles should be included in any bus franchise agreement to ensure a minimum level of terms and conditions for the staff of any bus company that enters into a franchise deal. We need to drive up, not drive down, workers’ terms and conditions across the sector. Simply put, if a bus company wants to receive public money for delivering services, it should be paying its workers a decent wage and offering a high standard of terms and conditions.
Re-regulation also provides an opportunity to drive forward multi-ticketing and end the current postcode lottery with regard to concessionary travel, particularly for young people. Those who are able to work their way through the current complex web of concessionary bus travel in Scotland will find that discount fares for children under 16 tend to be 50 per cent of the full fare. However, despite the fact that many young people are still in some form of education beyond the age of 16 and the fact that, if they are working, they are likely to be paid a low wage, the availability of discounts for young people of 16 or above can be non-existent or very limited.
If we are serious about reversing the decline in bus travel, we need to change the social attitude that often exists towards bus travel, and that needs to start in potential passengers as early as possible. We should make it a condition of any franchise deal that bus operators must provide a minimum level of concessionary bus travel for young people. Instead of trying to axe the bus pass for those who turn 60, the Government should be exploring ways to extend free bus travel to more young people.
There are other rigged rules that we need to revisit to stop our public transport being dictated at the whim of private bus companies. We should end the anomaly that prevents local councils from setting up municipal bus companies and ensure that, when any changes to bus routes are proposed, they will be allowed only after proper consultation with passengers and agreement by the traffic commissioner. It is simply not good enough that, often, the first time that passengers find out that their bus route is being axed or changed is after the decision has been made, when they pick up a new timetable.
From Unite the union’s haud the bus campaign to the Co-operative Party’s people’s bus campaign, there is a growing movement that wants to see our bus services change so that they start to put passengers and not profits first. Labour’s amendment sets out the real change that we want to see and will seek to deliver when the Government brings forward its transport bill later this year.
I move amendment S5M-11289.4, to insert at end:
“and put municipal ownership and bus reregulation at the heart of the bill to allow local authorities to set up bus services to serve their communities, protect bus routes, deliver minimum standards in concessionary travel, in particular for young people, and drive up staff terms and conditions, and is concerned that any measures to cut back availability of the current concessionary travel scheme will decrease bus usage further.”
I thank John Finnie and the Green Party for raising the issue of better buses. Like the Greens, the Liberal Democrats believe that reversing the decline in bus use across the country is essential. We need to make bus use a practical option for more people in communities across Scotland, particularly in our rural areas, where bus transport is problematic, to say the least.
However, we have a problem with the last part of the motion, which calls for a statutory target to achieve greater bus use. A statutory target without any penalties is just a useless piece of legislation. Our statutory health targets are consistently missed but, of course, no penalties have been attached to the Government because of those failings. Such targets are completely useless.
We think that, in the forthcoming transport bill, the Scottish Government will enable many of the freedoms in Labour’s amendment without calling for bus reregulation. However, we think that Labour has got it right in highlighting the concern about
“any measures to cut back availability of the current concessionary travel scheme”.
The Conservative amendment will, of course, be pre-empted if the Scottish Government’s amendment is agreed to.
Although I have not been in any discussions with the Government about its amendment, we are willing to support it because—I rarely say this—it is quite a sensible amendment and it chimes with what we believe.
I am coming to that. Do not get a heart attack.
However—there is always a “however”—I want to use this debate to highlight the important issue of ensuring that the concessionary travel scheme is not only protected but enhanced. I am proud that my colleague Tavish Scott introduced that successful scheme when he was transport minister. It is successful in many ways. It aims to get people out of their cars, not to do away with cars altogether, helps to end social isolation and loneliness—let us have joined-up government on that—and is extremely good for our environment. It is effectively a win-win scheme for everyone and is a really effective use of public money. However, I am concerned that the Minister for Transport and the Islands must not hide behind increasing its use for young people—which is very welcome—by reducing the availability of the bus pass for those aged 60 and over.
I have pointed out to the minister in committee that limiting the money that is available under the scheme effectively prevents the bus operators from driving up usage through advertising it. The minister made it clear that there is no Government prevention on that, but the bus operators feel that they are effectively prevented from advertising it because the scheme is designed so that any use over and above the limit has to be paid for by the bus companies themselves. That acts as a disincentive to promoting bus travel, and I ask the minister to look again at that issue.
I am in my final minute. I would take an intervention if I had more time, but I cannot do so, unfortunately. I am getting a nod from the Presiding Officer.
The key must be to increase bus usage, as that is a win-win for everyone and our environment. Anyone—not least the minister—who listened to my fulsome praise for the transport minister at this morning’s meeting of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee during stage 2 of the Islands (Scotland) Bill, when he refused to accept for himself the new Henry VIII powers that the Conservatives’ Jamie Greene was offering, might have been surprised by my comments, but I give praise where praise is due. I would like to heap such praise on him when he publishes his plans for the future of the concessionary bus scheme, but we shall have to wait and see.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
We can all agree that bus services make a big contribution to the economic, environmental and social sustainability of our towns, cities and rural communities. Buses keep us moving. Compared with the private motor car, they make efficient use of road space, and they have the lowest carbon footprint of all transport modes except bike and foot. If they are run as affordable, quality public services, buses can help young people to access apprenticeships while helping their parents get to work and empowering their grandparents to be free from physical and social isolation.
When I think back to my days as a councillor, I remember that the strongest community campaigns were always those to save bus routes and services. The slow erosion of councils’ power to subsidise and keep routes open has led to much suffering, especially in rural areas.
However, we can fall into the trap of not questioning the environmental performance of bus services. Although carbon emissions per passenger mile are low, buses make a major negative contribution to air quality through exhaust emissions of particulates and nitrous oxide. Successive Euro engine standards have driven down emissions over time, but pollution levels are still above European Union danger levels, especially on nitrous oxide, in 32 areas of Scotland, from Crieff to Glasgow. That hidden killer is contributing to the deaths of 2,500 people every year in Scotland alone.
Dieselisation of cars has not helped. The growing congestion levels in towns mean that stationary private cars are holding up polluting buses in toxic traffic queues, and the minister mentioned the parking problems that we can have in urban areas. It is clear that we must transform our bus services from being a major part of the public health pollution crisis to being a central part of its solution. The Government’s clean air for Scotland strategy—or CAFS, as it is known—recognised that, but the Government has been desperately slow to take action and it still faces the threat of legal action under European air quality laws if it does not speed up.
Even in that context, Scotland’s first low-emission zone, in Glasgow, has got off to an extremely shaky start, being branded as a “no ambition zone” by Friends of the Earth and a “free pass” to cars by Transform Scotland. In addition, there were non-governmental organisation resignations from the Scottish Government’s air quality group just last Friday. Fifteen per cent of the bus fleet in Glasgow is already Euro 6 compliant. Simply nudging that up to 20 per cent next year represents glacial progress that will ensure that we remain in breach of European air quality laws just as we are leaving the EU, with all the ministerial pledges on regulatory alignment still ringing in our ears.
The major immediate problem that Glasgow City Council faces seems to be relatively easy to solve. The minister could really help today by giving councils and bus companies some clarity on funding. The Scottish budget, which we approved just last month, includes £10.8 million specifically for low-emission zones. It also includes provision for a future transport fund that is worth £60 million, some of which is for a green bus fund. Following suggestions by the Greens in budget negotiations, a brand-new £10 million of financial transactions has been earmarked to support bus companies to improve emissions through retrofits.
Despite the tens of millions of pounds that are about to be made available in the new financial year in just four days’ time, nobody seems to have the certainty that is needed to make ambitious plans. The Glasgow low-emission zone is the most developed, and it needs certainty on how much of the £10.8 million of funding will go there. Bus companies and even some officials in Transport Scotland do not seem to know about the £10 million-worth of loans that could be made available for bus retrofits. Can the minister commit to providing more certainty to companies and councils on the funding that will be available for them to be ambitious on air pollution?
The environment is integral to what constitutes a quality public service. That is the point that I am trying to make. Environmental quality is hugely important to our communities and to the travelling public who have to breathe in the poor-quality air.
I return to the point about funding. I have another question to ask the minister in the time remaining to me. Will he commit to specifically tasking his officials to make sure that the loan fund, which is detailed in the draft budget, is made available for those bus retrofits and to give councils certainty of funding to help make the LEZ plans ambitious?
It is time that we made buses part of the pollution solution, not the pollution problem.
I should probably declare that I have had a bus pass since last summer and I have saved somewhere in the region of £150 since then.
I generally prefer to use public transport if it is practical. Quite apart from the obvious environmental benefits, using the bus or train lets me do many important things, such as reading committee papers for coming here or engaging in profound conversations on Twitter.
I find myself very much in agreement with the thrust of the motion. We all want affordable fares, a strong network of routes and reliable services. However, it has to be said that if we are to go beyond that to get cheaper fares, more routes and more reliable services, an additional cost will certainly be involved. Although I am open to either franchising or public ownership, neither comes without its problems and costs.
I accept that politics is about priorities, but if we put more money into buses and public transport, there will be less money somewhere else.
As I said, although I am open to franchising or public ownership, neither comes without its problems and costs. Our trains system is franchised and costs a lot of money. As I understand it, London buses are also franchised and, last time I looked, they cost something like £700 million per year, which is £100 per member of the population.
We used to have public ownership of buses in Glasgow and there were still complaints. I grew up in Rutherglen and folk there used to complain that the outlying schemes such as Castlemilk got a much better bus service because that was where the Labour councillors got most of their votes and they fixed the buses to serve those areas.
Whoever owns and operates our bus services, someone still has to decide which services are viable and which need to be reduced. There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation here. Does having fewer people using the buses lead to reduced routes or do reduced routes lead to fewer passengers?
In my constituency, the improvement of the rail service on the Whifflet line has encouraged some people to switch from bus to train. Personally, I prefer it if I can use the train or the bus rather than my car. However, one of my neighbours asked me why on earth I would leave my car at home and use the train or the bus. To him, it was partly a status thing and a sign of being in control that he would use his car virtually all the time. Many people still want their own cars because using the car means that there is no waiting around at bus stops or on station platforms and it gets them from door to door and lets them drop off the kids at school and carry on to work.
As John Finnie and Colin Smyth said, in some circles, there can be a certain amount of stigma about bus travel, which is not some people’s transport method of choice. I remember seeing an exchange in a film called “Crash”, which was set in Los Angeles. One of the characters says, “You have no idea why they put those great big windows on the sides of buses, do you?” His mate then asks, “Why?” and he replies, “One reason only: to humiliate the people of colour who are reduced to riding on them.” We have a slightly different situation here, but I think the point is made.
Although I have a lot of sympathy with the motion, I wonder whether we can set statutory targets for bus usage, which sounds like trying to force people to use buses. We will have to do something on education to change the culture to get people enthusiastic.
There can be tension between two different good things. Low-emission zones can push up the costs to the bus industry, which maybe pushes up fares. In Glasgow we have pedestrian zones, which are good, but the buses have to do circuitous routes around them, which can have a damaging effect in respect of journey times and emissions.
I support what the Greens are saying, but I have some reservations.
I, too, need to declare an interest, as I also have a bus pass, although I have not actually used it yet.
I welcome John Finnie’s motion, as it would be amended by my colleague Jamie Greene. I am sure that everyone in this chamber can support increasing the use of buses and making services available to as many people as possible. Not only are there socioeconomic benefits, but there are environmental benefits, too, because increasing the use of public transport and decreasing the use of personal vehicles would greatly reduce our carbon emissions.
It is hard to see why, in a large city such as Edinburgh, people would not want to take the bus. It is relatively cost effective, bus lanes provide journeys that are free from congestion and, with eight bus companies providing services, buses can take people pretty much anywhere they want. However, it is a different story in the North East Scotland region that I represent. One in five bus routes in Scotland have been axed since 2010, many of which were rural services. As the number of people using rural services has decreased, the number of routes offered has decreased in an ever-downward spiral. The last remaining people using those routes are relying on their councils to subsidise the services.
It is well known that Aberdeenshire Council has been underfunded for years, and with constantly squeezed budgets it has to focus on its statutory duties. Nevertheless, it has subsidised 64 out of 123 bus routes in the area, spending some £3.7 million a year and serving more than 900,000 passengers. Last month, however, the council unfortunately had to announce proposals to remove eight routes and reduce two of the routes that it has subsidised; with its budget for 2018-19 decreasing by 4.3 per cent in real terms, it had no other option. Decisions on local bus service provision must be taken as close as possible to those who will benefit from it. In practice, improving local authorities’ ability to increase services and passenger numbers is hard, but decreasing their budgets certainly will not help.
Transport accounts for just under a quarter of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions, and road transport makes up 73 per cent of those emissions. Figures show that the average occupancy of a car is one and a half persons. In theory, therefore, if there are 50 people travelling to work each day in their cars and those 50 people switch to a single bus, that will decrease not only our greenhouse gas emissions but congestion on our roads. In that scenario, one bus takes more than 30 cars off the road.
However, driving has begun to be seen as the easy option. Public transport fares are increasing, routes are reducing and figures from Citizens Advice Scotland show that nearly two thirds of people are dissatisfied with the bus. We need to reverse that by providing frequent and reliable services at a reasonable cost. We need to encourage people out of their cars and on to the bus. The problem is how to do that. Unfortunately, I do not have time today to explore that further.
Today’s debate is all about vision: a vision to improve the standard of our bus services, increase public use of bus services and improve our environment. I hope that the Government will adopt some of the visionary ideas that it has heard today from across the chamber and do something to reverse the fall in bus usage, which has plummeted 17 per cent over the past 10 years.
I am pleased to speak in the debate, and I thank the Greens and John Finnie for focusing on the issue of buses. I will highlight the issue of integrated public transport with an example from my South Scotland region, and focus on the need for reregulation and the issue of bus emissions.
On integrated transport, I want to describe briefly what someone would have to do if they lived in Lanark and wanted to travel to Edinburgh on public transport. One cannot get a train from Lanark to Edinburgh, so they would have to travel to the nearest train station, which is a 15-minute bus journey away in Carstairs. Members might think that that is not too bad, but it is not that simple. On the morning commute, after getting off the bus they would have to wait for up to 40 minutes for a train, and at the end of the day they could find themselves at 5.40 on the train from Edinburgh to Carstairs. That service is at a useful time for me and I often take it. However, I have a car, whereas those who do not have a car have to wait another 55 minutes for a bus to get back to Lanark. Where is the integrated transport? Perhaps I am oversimplifying the issue but, in my view, much of what I described happens because private bus companies operate the route and do not have to provide a connecting service to the train station. That is unacceptable, because it means that living in Lanark and commuting to Edinburgh without a car is near impossible and certainly not practical.
As a country, we ask people to leave the car at home, but we do not provide a real alternative. Buses and trains should be our number 1 short and long-distance public transport alternatives to cars, not just for people who cannot drive but for those who can. As my colleague John Finnie said, one third of people are not even car owners.
Integrated public transport is essential. I have been talking about the issue for many years, but has it happened yet? The answer is no. To achieve it for the population, buses must be affordable, must go where people need to go in urban and rural areas, and must go at the times that people need.
The present arrangements for bus contracts drive forward an unacceptable state of affairs in urban and rural Scotland. Profit-driven private companies with little accountability will not change the way in which they operate simply because we ask them to. As we have heard from many members, bus passenger numbers are falling and will continue to fall until the Government takes some action. I agree with John Finnie that a national performance framework indicator should be considered.
Scottish Labour has worked in many ways with the Scottish Co-operative Party, Unite the union and the Socialist Environment Resources Association to take forward bus reregulation. When we come into government, we will reregulate our buses, but let us hope that it happens before that through the transport bill. Iain Gray introduced a bill to reregulate the buses in the previous parliamentary session, but time ran out. It is now the time to do that, as people and the planet cannot wait any longer.
Reregulation will also create the opportunity to set a clear expectation for low emissions at a national level, and Lothian Buses should be recognised for its lead on that, which will help to address air pollution and protect people’s health. My colleague Mark Ruskell highlighted the importance of the Scottish Government loan for the changes to buses, and I hope that the minister will comment on that in his closing remarks. It is about low-emission zones and people’s health, but it is also about greenhouse gas emissions, which are so important, and it is part of my brief and that of many members in this chamber to tackle that.
I look forward to the transport bill and to the Scottish Government having robust arrangements for the future of our buses with regard to a whole range of issues that have been highlighted this afternoon. I also look forward to the opportunities for Scottish National Party back benchers and members of other parties to lodge amendments as necessary.
I think that we all agree that the current approach to bus provision does not deliver what we and, more importantly, the public want. We might disagree about which faultlines are most significant or about the solutions but, as MSPs who deal with constituency issues, I suspect that there is a general point of consensus.
I was recently involved in dialogue with a provider over its decision to remove a local service, which caused considerable difficulty for a relatively small, but not insignificant, number of my constituents. I was struck by the justification that was offered by the operator for scrapping a service that attracted 900 passengers a week on average. It was quite blunt: the operator was not making money on the route, so it was being pulled. There was also reference to a lack of subsidy, yet there remain a considerable number of subsidy-provided buses in Scotland, particularly in rural or semi-rural settings.
If I recall correctively, the bus service operators grant, which is still worth more than £50 million a year, was refocused just a few years ago to link subsidy with kilometres travelled, thereby better supporting distance routes such as those in Angus South.
The concessionary travel scheme is another form of subsidy in so far as it encourages use of bus services. Around £200 million is being directed to support that in 2018-19, with 1.3 million people expected to make around 145 million journeys.
Beyond that, the Government provides bus companies with access to funding streams, which were recently enhanced, to replace old polluting buses, and the main operator in my constituency has made good use of that. In all, the idea that there is not enough support provided for bus travel in Scotland is absurd. The major problem is that we are in a situation in which bus companies are only interested in profitable routes, and that is the issue that we need to crack.
I welcome the fact that the forthcoming transport bill will be used to give local authorities powers to step in and run local bus services. Anything that offers the opportunity to secure a changed approach is worth pursuing, but I caution against that being seen as a silver bullet, especially in areas such as the one that I represent. For that to work, it will require local authorities to view it as an opportunity to be grasped. I am not sure that that can be taken as a given.
We have a council in Angus that has, at times, shown too little regard for its rural parts. It has insisted on there being no rural focus when putting £2 million in the pot to enhance broadband provision across the county, scrapped road and pavement winter weather clearing across a range of villages, withdrawn food waste collections from areas just outside settlements, and introduced changes to recycling provision that have seen fly tipping incidents across our rural areas increasing.
That is not a political point. Those examples cover periods of different hues of control of the authority, including by the SNP. When the kind of mindset betrayed by such actions exists, can we assume with any confidence that councils will instinctively seek to deliver bus services based on social responsibility and equity of access, rather than on the bottom line? Although I support exploring options, let us do so mindful that it will not necessarily bring about improvement unless we crack collaboration and do not have a one-size-fits-all approach.
I welcome the fact that the Greens have dedicated some of their debating time to this issue. It is a debate that we absolutely should be having, but let us recognise the complex nature of the issue and the need for good will and co-operation to resolve it in a way that meets the aspirations of the public.
I add my thanks to the Greens for bringing this topic to the chamber today. There has been a great deal of consensus throughout the debate about the importance of buses and the need to act. The minister pointed out in opening that 80 per cent of all public transport journeys in Scotland are taken by bus, and that is correct. Some 393 million journeys a year are taken by bus, compared to 94 million rail journeys. However, as Colin Smyth told us, those numbers are changing. Bus use has dropped by 17 per cent, while rail passenger numbers have been increasing. That is because, as a number of members have said, we have let bus passengers down over recent years.
The minister cited a figure that he described as £0.25 billion. That £250,000 of subsidy is provided to bus services in Scotland each year but, as John Finnie made clear, that is significantly less than we spend on roads, and it is also less than the subsidy that is provided to rail. Colin Smyth pointed out that the core subsidy—the bus service operators grant—has in fact fallen by 25 per cent in recent years. A number of members have talked about the concessionary travel scheme, and the reimbursement of that has also been squeezed in recent years, so that the bus operators do not get the benefit that they did when the scheme was introduced.
We have also heard a couple of passing references to a good example of how things can be better. John Finnie started that when he talked about buses in my constituency of East Lothian, and he is absolutely right. Until relatively recently, we were one of the worst examples of how bus services in 21st century Scotland can fail communities. Services were provided largely by FirstBus. It was a poor service. It was unreliable and provided by very old buses that were uncomfortable—indeed it was not unusual for them to catch fire en route. As a result, with every week that passed, fewer passengers would use those buses. That is the answer to Mr Mason’s question of whether it was a chicken or an egg. It was a downward spiral—poor buses, fewer passengers and less investment by the company, which then began to close down routes that were not making any money and cherry pick the routes where it thought that it could still make money. Eventually, the operator gave up altogether and walked away.
Those services were replaced by Lothian Buses, a municipally owned company, which treated East Lothian not as routes but as a network, and reinvested its profits in new buses and new routes. As a result, I now live in a village of about 100 people and have a bus every half hour from my door, and even have night buses, which I could use if I were young or exciting enough to find myself in the city in the middle of the night.
The question is: if we know that it can be done, how do we encourage it to happen elsewhere? Labour has an answer. In the past two sessions of the Parliament, we have presented bills that were primarily focused on reregulation through local franchising. That is the key to improving our bus services.
The Government supported that proposal in opposition but has opposed it in government. Indeed, in the previous session of the Parliament, it denounced our proposals in the most strident form. Therefore, when the Minister for Transport and the Islands says that he is excited about local franchising and wants to hear our views, it indicates that he cannot really have been listening for the past nine years, because we want local franchising to be introduced. However, as the previous First Minister used to like to say, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repenteth.
We are delighted that the Government has come round to the idea. We could have had local franchising by now if the Government had supported our bills. We need to hear less talk of the transport bill. It needs to be introduced. Let us get it done.
The debate on bus travel has proven to be a much-needed sharing of ambitions that, I hope, will help the Scottish Government’s forthcoming transport bill.
Everyone is rightly concerned about what they consider to be their bus services. For too long, timetabling issues and gaps in services have meant that passengers are heavily inconvenienced and wonder whether they should use buses at all. For example, one-minute connection times are just not acceptable
Many people in rural areas who have to cope with older buses that often have no heaters and high emissions, as Mark Ruskell and Peter Chapman highlighted, do not look forward to bus travel. However, it does not end there. Constituents in the Highlands have found that buses have been removed from routes due to breakdowns and retasking. The result is that people miss appointments, and the level of distrust in bus companies has resulted in lower bus use.
I absolutely believe that co-ordination between all levels and proper management would make a much better bus service, which must be what we are aiming for.
We must understand that the scrapping of bus services will have long-term consequences in rural areas. We know only too well that, once bus services are removed, communities feel isolated and opportunities are closed off to them. Those bus services seldom come back.
The Conservatives agree with John Finnie that we need to halt the decline in bus use, which is occurring despite the financial contribution that the Government makes. However, it is not, as he makes out, an argument between buses and trains, as many rural areas do not have access to trains. Therefore, we must, as John Finnie says, support both. We must make buses and trains attractive to use.
We agree with the minister that we must do something urgently to prevent the decline in bus use. We also agree that taking central control will not help. As Jamie Greene pointed out, we cannot dilute the message that John Finnie has given. We want to promote the use of buses. We also believe that, as Jamie Greene made clear, cherry picking profitable routes serves Scotland and the bus users badly, and we agree with Colin Smyth that our bus services are lifelines for students, non-car users and rural users.
South of the border, the Conservative Government has come to the view that the way of achieving what Mr Mountain is calling for is to allow local franchising, particularly in cities. Will he agree with that?
I am looking at what is happening in Scotland and I do not want to take the argument south of the border. There are plenty of people down there who will take the argument up.
We have sympathy with Mike Rumbles’s point that setting targets without penalties will not achieve much. Many people in the Highlands would love to use trains and buses but have to use their cars because they do not have the ability to use either form of public transport. We need to give them more choice.
We do not necessarily support Claudia Beamish’s call for reregulation of services, but we support concessionary travel, as do all parties in the chamber.
We welcome the debate and would like a complete review of bus provision to ensure that it delivers for those people whom it serves, rather than just meets targets that have been set arbitrarily. We want to see increased use of buses, which will be achieved by well-managed companies that deliver services across all routes, not just those that are profitable. That will need continued Government support, which must be targeted to ensure the high-quality services that we all require.
We remain convinced that the Government’s amendment dilutes John Finnie’s motion, so we will not support it. We suggest—tactfully—to the Liberal Democrats that they should think very carefully about supporting the amendment and, by doing so, diluting the message that John Finnie has rightly brought to the chamber.
This has been a very good debate, and I thank John Finnie and the Greens for bringing it to the Parliament. Bus travel does not get enough airtime. Although other transport modes should be given parliamentary airtime, the fact that 80 per cent of public transport passenger journeys are done by bus is not reflected in the amount of conversation that takes place in the chamber.
There are issues with bus services being withdrawn—members have mentioned the impact of that in their constituencies—but the experience of travelling on the bus is popular among those people who do it. The most recent transport focus survey, a couple of weeks ago, highlighted that nine out of 10 passengers were satisfied with the journey that they had just taken. Transport focus interviews a large sample and, importantly, the survey takes place right after the journey, so it reflects bus passengers’ views quite accurately. That is not to say that urgent attention is not needed.
We are introducing the most radical measures in the devolution era to tackle the decline of bus patronage. I accept some of what Iain Gray has said about sinners repenting, but I do not accept it fully because, with the transport bill that we will introduce—he will wait to see the details—we will improve on the measures that he has brought to the chamber in the past.
I intend to introduce them in the first half of 2018, before the summer recess. A reason for the delay is that the transport bill is more than just the bus element; we will also focus on responsible parking and the Scottish Road Works Commissioner and we might want to bring in some bits about LEZs. However, the intention is that the bill should be introduced no later than the summer.
I also gently make the point—although I will not labour it—that when Labour was in power, it did not introduce powers for local franchising or municipally owned bus companies. The Scottish Government’s proposals for the transport bill will be the most radical bus measures in the devolution era.
I will turn to a couple of points that have been made by members. I have been praised by Mike Rumbles twice today—I fear that if he does it any more, I will be excommunicated from the SNP. The points that he and other members have made about concessionary travel have been put on the record. The Government is still in listening mode; our consultation had almost 3,000 responses and no decision has been made. It would be presumptuous for anybody to think that any decision on concessionary travel has been made yet, because it has not.
Mark Ruskell, Claudia Beamish and others have asked for clarity on low-emission zones, which I am pleased to give. In Derek Mackay’s budget, money is ring fenced for LEZs. We are also working with stakeholders and the bus industry on a loan scheme to give maximum flexibility. There is no doubt that, for some bus fleets, retrofit is the right way to go, but other bus operators do not think that retrofitting would be the right thing for them because of the age of their fleet—Lothian Buses is in that category. Providing assistance with the cost of Euro 6 buses might be the best thing to do as opposed to retrofitting Euro 3 buses, which do not have much life left in them at all.
As I said in my opening remarks, I think that Glasgow is listening to what the Greens, Friends of the Earth and others have said about their ambition for the Glasgow LEZ. The money is there. We have to be careful, though, because although a proportion of the money that we are putting forward for LEZs will be for the abatement of emissions, some of it will be for some of the important infrastructure for LEZs, such as number-plate recognition.
We have to continue to work with stakeholders and be as flexible as possible. It sounds as though everyone is excited, to varying degrees, about the transport bill. It will not be a silver bullet—we also need local action at a local level. That is the purpose of my amendment and I hope that members will whole-heartedly support it, because I do not think that it takes anything away from the motion other than in relation to the disagreement that we have over a national target. Other than that, I think that the amendment supports the aims that most people in the chamber have spoken to.
I am delighted that we have had the debate and I look forward to hearing people’s views on our forthcoming transport bill.
I thank all those who have contributed. It is fair to say that this has been a fairly consensual debate, with a great deal of agreement on many of the issues.
I agree with the minister that congestion is the real issue here—demand reduction is key and sometimes that aim is challenged by local authorities that are increasing free car parking opportunities in our cities, directly contradicting the sea change that we want to see.
Jamie Greene spoke about lifeline services and for many people, buses are just that; I was pleased to hear him speak out against the practice of cherry picking routes. I welcome Colin Smyth’s call for fair work principles to be embedded in contracts with companies and I share Mike Rumbles’s support for the many benefits of concessionary travel. Mark Ruskell spoke of the action that is needed to ensure that companies and councils can be as ambitious as we want them to be when it comes to air quality. I have some concerns about John Mason’s contribution. I hope that he will have as much concern and as many reservations about his Government’s commitment to reducing air departure tax as he has about investing in our buses.
In response to what the minister said earlier, I say this: who can have travelled on Lothian Buses and not be convinced that it is the way to go? I am not biased; I am an Edinburgh resident who is so grateful for the service that Lothian Buses provides and that Lothian residents enjoy, but I want everyone to have access to equally good bus travel. The forthcoming transport bill gives us an opportunity to ensure that all regions of Scotland establish a service that is every bit as good as Lothian Buses, which just happens to be owned and managed for the benefit of the local community.
Lothian Buses has been on the go for nearly 100 years, it employs more than 2,000 people and it operates around the clock—as Iain Gray has said—365 days a year. This year alone, it has been shortlisted for public transport operator of the year, for best bus service, and for excellence in travel information and marketing at the Scottish transport awards.
We frequently do this in the chamber for a variety of occupations, but I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who drive, maintain and clean our buses. Also, I cannot let this debate finish without mentioning Charmaine Laurie’s heroic driving, which saved lives in the snow on Edinburgh’s streets.
As we know, bus travel was deregulated by the Conservative Government in 1986. Deregulation has entirely failed to meet its objectives. It has not increased competition in the sector; instead, it has placed vital public services in the hands of a few profit-making companies which, at times, have demonstrated little obligation to the communities that they serve. Today, the vast majority of buses in Scotland are run by just two companies, and it is fair to say that all members are contacted with concerns regarding the service that they offer at times. Issues are raised about regularity, reliability, cost, cleanliness—
In many small towns and rural areas, it is not big companies but small local businesses that provide a vital service—and they are not sitting around in wads of profit either. How do we ensure that there is still a model that allows such small businesses in rural areas to be supported?
Recently, I was contacted by people from Pathhead who were very concerned about the potential loss of the 51/52 service that is run by Borders Buses, which would have prevented them from getting to Dalkeith. Therefore we are working in conjunction with local authorities, and it is key that we see buses as a public service with which both local government and national Government have an involvement. While profit-seeking companies are delivering such services, they have a part to play and have to have responsibility for the job that they undertake.
Efficient, low-cost public transport is good for society and for us all. Only recently, the cross-party group on cycling and walking became the cross-party group on cycling, walking and buses. We widened our remit because good bus links are so important to our active travel infrastructure and, indeed, to all of us. Buses are the glue in a thriving low-carbon transport system. When they are resourced properly, they have the potential to increase individual rail, walking and cycling journeys.
I agree with Claudia Beamish, who called for a real alternative to the car. In many situations, people do not have that. She spoke of the journeys that people can face when they try to access our cities from rural parts of Scotland. Buses have relatively low capital costs and they are flexible, which makes them central to an adaptable transport sector, so we should all be concerned that numbers have fallen. The Government’s climate change plan has focused on electric cars. Those are fine—they are better than diesel and petrol cars—but they do not reduce congestion. You can sit in an electric car traffic jam, and a bus can still be waiting for a long time. When people complain that their buses have not arrived on time, it is usually because our congested roads are holding them back.
There is also a gender issue here—
In closing, I would just like to say—I do have the last word in this debate—that a statutory target in a transport bill to increase bus patronage would help to focus our efforts. If we are serious about social justice in Scotland, we have to be serious about buses.