I am delighted that the Government has accepted Labour’s long-standing goal to lift the ban on councils running bus services, without restrictions such as limiting services to areas where there is an unmet need, as was previously specified in the bill, or requiring local authorities to set up an arm’s-length company.
Across Scotland, bus passenger numbers are falling, vital routes are disappearing and fares are rising. We desperately need to change. We need to empower our local authorities to run bus services for the benefit of their communities and break up the private monopolies that too often dominate the bus market.
Public transport should be a public service, where profits are invested in improving services and keeping fares down, not boosting shareholders’ dividends. To see the benefits of municipal ownership, we simply have to look outside the windows of this Parliament at Lothian Buses, which runs one of the most popular bus networks in the country and last year returned £7.7 million to the public purse.
Although the arm’s-length approach that has been taken in Lothian has been successful, a one-size-fits-all approach such as the one put forward by the Government at stage 2 would not work for all communities. Setting up a municipal bus company comes with significant risk and costs and it is unrealistic for a council that is simply seeking to run a small number of services. It is critical that local authorities have flexibility and can run services directly where needed, allowing them to build up capacity and expertise over time.
My stage 2 amendment delivered that, as do the amendments lodged today by the Government, which reflect and respect the decision taken by the committee at stage 2. I am therefore happy to support the Government amendments. I am grateful to the cabinet secretary’s officials for discussing the wording of the amendments with me and with others, including COSLA, before they were lodged.