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I appreciate the work that the Government, the cabinet secretary and his team have done on this issue. The committee looked at the issue in its stage 1 report, in which we identified that the bill did not go far enough in empowering local authorities to have the flexibility to run bus services where they saw the need.
The issue stemmed from the fact that local authorities would be able only to run services that were classified as meeting an unmet need. By default, those have tended to be the services that commercial operators have pulled out of or do not operate because they are not commercially viable. Asking local authorities only to operate services in that environment is untenable. There was very little appetite to do that among the local authorities that we wrote to; in their responses, few of them had either the resource—financial or otherwise—or the appetite to run such services.
That issue was reflected at stage 2, when we amended the bill. I supported some of Colin Smyth’s amendments, but after stage 2, part 2 of the bill was a bit of a mess and it needed to be tidied up. Over the summer, I met a number of Scotland’s major bus operators and some of the smaller ones, and I extended the conversation to local authorities as well, so that we could find a compromise that works, that delivers on the requests of the committee and that takes into account some of the fair points that Colin Smyth raised about local authorities wanting to do their best for people in their area. We have to balance that with ensuring that we do not produce legislation that will inadvertently create issues for local authorities.
If a local authority wants to run a bus service, it should do so through the mechanism that the Government proposed; ideally, it should be through an arm’s-length company. That would keep clear blue water between the bit of the council that operates the service and the bit that tenders and issues licences to operate services. However, we know that we need to do something to improve bus patronage, which is still decreasing in Scotland.
I hope that local authorities will consider these amendments to be positive and I hope that any local authority that is considering operating a service will think carefully about the implications and give the decision the gravitas that it requires, because it is not easy, cheap or simple to do so. However, if it chooses to do so, it will have our support. I am happy to support all the Government’s amendments on bus franchising.