The Scottish Government is committed to improving rural bus services. The Government is providing to the bus industry funding of over £250 million in the current financial year to support the overall bus network, to maintain routes that would otherwise not be viable, to help passengers with the cost of fares, including concessionary fares, and to support local authorities to run services that they deem to be socially necessary but that are, perhaps, not commercially viable. The forthcoming transport bill will give local authorities the flexibility to pursue partnership working or local franchising, or to run their own bus services, which will allow them to respond better to local needs.
There is, of course, a mixed picture. For example, patronage has increased on Lothian Buses but has declined in other areas. That is why I will introduce a transport bill.
I remind Neil Findlay that Labour may well talk the talk, but it is the Scottish National Party Government that walks the walk. In 13 years in power at Westminster and eight years in power at Holyrood, Labour never regulated the buses, and Labour never brought in franchising, but the SNP will. Labour never allowed for municipally owned bus companies, but the SNP will.
Neil Findlay should stick to what he does best, which is bluff, bluster and make jokes that only he laughs at. I will stick to my day job, and I am sure that everybody will be happier for it.
In my constituency of Renfrewshire South, communities including Lochwinnoch have experienced a decline in bus services over the past decade. There is a tension between limited demand and the commercial imperatives of operators. Will the minister outline how the upcoming transport bill can provide an important opportunity for the whole sector to improve bus services and to tackle declining patronage?
The transport bill will contain a range of measures, some of which I outlined in my previous answer. There will be measures on partnership, local franchising, the potential for municipally owned bus companies, more open data and smart ticketing. All those will undoubtedly help, but none of them is a magic bullet. I should say that local action will also be needed. Glasgow has a connectivity commission headed by David Begg that is looking at issues including on-street car parking and bus priority lanes. A mixture of national and local action is needed.
Aberdeenshire Council, which is in my region, has to subsidise 64 out of 123 routes, many of which are in rural areas. Last month, the council announced proposals to remove eight of those routes and to reduce the service on two of them. It had no other option, given that its budget for this year is decreasing by 4.36 per cent in real terms. How can the cabinet secretary continue to say that the Government is improving rural bus services?
I am not convinced that that is what I said. In my answer to Neil Findlay, I said that there is a mixed picture across the country. In some areas patronage is declining, and in other areas there is an increase. The Borders, where Borders Buses has recently been created, is an example of a rural area where the bus market is doing better than it was previously. There is a mixed bag.
The measures that we bring forward in the transport bill will give local authorities more powers to improve bus services, both rural and urban. I look forward to the Conservatives supporting that bill, as I hope will be the case, given what Peter Chapman said.