Local Bus Networks

– in the Scottish Parliament on 20 April 2023.

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Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

2. To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how it is supporting communities and local authorities to strengthen local bus networks across Scotland. (S6O-02125)

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

Local authorities have greater tools at their disposal, from the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, to revitalise bus networks. Since June 2022, local authorities have been able to run their own local services, and, from 1 April, they can now request more information from operators via a new information-sharing process if they propose to vary or cancel services. Further legislation on partnerships and franchising will be introduced later this year.

Separately, through the bus partnership fund, £26 million of bus priority funding has been awarded to 11 partnerships, covering 28 Scottish local authorities, to tackle congestion and improve journey reliability.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

I thank the minister for that answer about the package that is emerging. However, despite public subsidies, private bus operators are still slashing services in rural areas. Community groups such as the Glenfarg community transport group are stepping up to provide new services. That community group recently launched a new bus service on a recently axed route from Glenfarg to Kinross, which managed to carry about 200 passengers in its first week alone. Will the minister outline the Scottish Government’s plan to support communities to deliver the quality bus services that they deserve?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

It is always heartening when communities get actively involved in improving their local services. I welcome the launch of bus service 55 in Glenfarg.

We brought forward a toolkit of flexible bus options in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 to enable local authorities such as Perth and Kinross Council to respond to transport challenges in their areas. Local authorities now have the power to run their own bus services. That sits alongside their existing ability to subsidise services. In 2021-22, local authorities spent £55 million on subsidising socially necessary services. Powers to develop bus service improvement partnerships and to establish local services franchising will follow.

As Mr Ruskell knows, because we have already had discussions about this, we are also introducing a community bus fund to support local transport authorities to explore the options in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 and to improve public transport in their areas, as is happening in Glenfarg.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I have a number of requests from members to ask supplementary questions. I will be able to take only some of those, given the time constraints. I make a plea, again, for succinct questions and answers.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

If the minister was serious about getting people on to buses, he would take action on bus fares, as he is doing on train fares. Why does he not replicate what England has, which is a fare cap on local bus journeys?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

We will continue to look at not only rail fares but bus fares as we move forward. However, I point out to Mr Simpson that we do things somewhat differently here. In this country, we have a concessionary travel scheme that covers over-60s and under-22s. We are investing some £359.3 million in those schemes, which benefit people throughout Scotland. More than 2.3 million people throughout Scotland have access to free bus travel. That is certainly not the case south of the border.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I welcome the concessionary bus fares. How much do those subsidies—indeed, I would call them investments in the services—cost?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

As I have just pointed out in response to Mr Simpson’s question, we are investing £359.3 million in concessionary travel and giving 2.3 million people access to free bus travel in Scotland. In March 2022, the Child Poverty Action Group reported that free bus travel for young people can save a total of £3,000 to the lifetime cost of a child in Scotland. That also tackles child poverty. With more than 3 million journeys every week, those schemes are helping people throughout our nation to cut costs for essential, everyday and leisure travel, and are making sustainable travel a more attractive option. All of that, of course, supports our net zero ambitions, too.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I can squeeze in Monica Lennon’s supplementary question if I can get a succinct answer from the minister.

Photo of Monica Lennon Monica Lennon Labour

Free bus travel is great but, in parts of Scotland, bus services have been taken away altogether, including in Hamilton, following the withdrawal of the X1 bus. Local people with free bus passes therefore have to use cars and taxis. That is bad for climate action and is exacerbating social and economic inequality.

Three weeks ago, I met 100 residents who want to see action from transport chiefs and joined-up support. They are not getting that from the Government or from others. Will the minister, whom I welcome to his new post, meet me and campaigners to see how we can find a way forward?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I am willing to meet almost anyone, as folk in the chamber are very well aware. However, in the first instance, those campaigners need to speak to the local authority, which is ultimately in charge of those services.

I say to Ms Lennon and other members that the Government will do what it can in terms of investing, such as in the concessionary travel scheme and in the bus partnership fund, to get this right but, ultimately, some things are down to local authorities and local decision making. I hope that local authorities—in this case, South Lanarkshire Council—will have listened to Ms Lennon’s question and will take action to support local bus services.