Publicly-owned Bus Services

– in the Scottish Parliament on 29th June 2022.

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Photo of Gillian Mackay Gillian Mackay Green

2. To ask the Scottish Government what actions it is taking to support the establishment of more publicly-owned bus services. (S6O-01293)

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

Section 34 of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, entitled, “Provision of bus services etc by local transport authorities” came into force on 24 June, which was last Friday. It provides local transport authorities with the power to run their own services in any way that they see fit within the wider context of their obligations.

We have allocated £1 million in the Scottish budget for development of the community bus fund in 2022-23 to support local transport authorities to improve local bus services and explore the full range of options that are set out in the 2019 act, including local-authority-run bus services.

The fund complements our broader package of long-term investment in bus travel, including through support for bus services, concessionary schemes for bus users and more than £500 million that is being made available through the bus partnership fund.

Photo of Gillian Mackay Gillian Mackay Green

There has been a raft of service cuts across central Scotland, with driver shortages and efficiency cuts being blamed. When we should be increasing service provision, services are being cut. Stagecoach reported a profit of more than £32 million for the first half of the most recent financial year, yet the X28 service, which serves Cumbernauld in my region, is up for cancellation. Does the minister agree that more needs to be done to hold the private sector to account, and that more support for publicly owned bus services could ensure that the transport needs of our communities are truly supported?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I absolutely agree with the sentiment of the member’s question. It is worth pointing out that a considerable amount of public subsidy flowed to operators throughout the pandemic. I think that, from June 2020, they received more than £210 million. Ms Mackay will be aware of the additional funding that I announced to the sector only last week. That supports the sector with its continuing recovery from the pandemic and allows operators to respond to changed travel patterns that are arising from people working from home.

However, I am clear that subsidy from Government to private operators is not sustainable, and nor is it desirable in terms of the longer-term ambitions. Ms Mackay made an important point in relation to the profit margins of some operators; the point is particularly pertinent because bus travel is one of the most affordable forms of public transport.

I will write to Stagecoach about its proposed cancellations. Ms Mackay has highlighted one today, and a number of members have written to me about cancellations in their constituencies in other parts of the country.

As I said, last week I announced additional funding. Bus operators that are in receipt of the network support grant plus are required to accept the conditions that set controls on fare rises and profits, and to have regard to, for example, fair work principles. I expect operators who benefit from that public funding not to reduce services but instead to look after the communities that they serve.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We have a number of supplementaries; they will have to be brief.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

There are too many bus deserts in this country, so the new powers are an opportunity to do things better. I like to be positive and to help the minister, so I have an idea for her. Will she convene a summit of councils and operators to consider the way forward?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I know that Mr Simpson likes to be helpful to me in my ministerial role, but I am ahead of him—I have already convened working groups with operators on the back of a call that I had with First Bus and Lothian Buses last week.

There are a number of challenges in that space at the moment. The first is in relation to service provision and long-term funding, and the second is driver shortages. That is a real challenge, so I want to work with operators to see what more the Government can do to support them, although we recognise the split in relation to devolved and reserved competences.

Photo of Neil Bibby Neil Bibby Labour

The powers are enabling powers for councils to establish publicly owned bus services. For clarity, does the minister actually want councils to use the powers? Does she agree that the bus market is broken beyond repair and that councils must take back control of bus services? If they do that, does the minister believe that the community bus fund is sufficient?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

Yes—I want local councils to run their own services. Why else would I stand here talking about the powers in an act that gives local authorities the power to do so?

With regard to whether the community bus fund is enough, we are working on the design and scope of the fund, which involves discussions with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and the Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers. I recognise that £1 million is perhaps not as much as members might think there should be, but it gives us a good impetus to trial what the approach might look like in different parts of the country. That has to be done in partnership with local authorities.

I also reflect on the resource spending review, which allocated £46 million to the community bus fund for the remainder of this parliamentary session. Therefore, although that initial £1 million might seem small to Neil Bibby, the further funding that will flow—£30 million that has been allocated in the capital spending review—will also contribute. However, we have to allow local authorities to get the funding right for their local area. That is what the powers in the act allow them to do. I am keen to work with our local authority partners to deliver that.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Collette Stevenson, who joins us online, has a brief question.

Photo of Collette Stevenson Collette Stevenson Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government has already responded to requests by local authorities to be empowered to run their own bus services. The Government has committed to investing more than £0.5 billion in long-term funding for bus-priority infrastructure and has expanded free bus travel to under-22s. Does the minister, therefore, look forward, as I do, to seeing how local authorities capitalise on the new powers and take advantage of the Scottish Government’s having placed buses at the forefront of our just transition to net zero?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Please answer as briefly as possible, minister.

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

Yes. I agree with the sentiment of the question. As I outlined to Mr Bibby, I am really pleased that the Government is empowering our local authorities with flexible options to revitalise their local bus networks—including, of course, by running their own bus services. I look forward to working with them on delivery of their models.