Scotland’s privatised buses aren’t working – how much longer can we put up with the status quo?

Scotland has some of the most profit-driven and privatised buses in the World. It's time for us all to work together to put passenger voice back at the heart of our transport system.

Neil Bibby

Labour & Co-operative Member of the Scottish Parliament for West of Scotland

The Scottish Co-operative Party has placed a welcome focus on public transport, asking important questions about ownership and accountability in both the bus sector and the railway industry.

The idea that society works best for us all when ordinary people have a voice in our economy and in our public services, when we share power and work together, is profoundly important. It’s an idea that is central to the Co-operative philosophy and it’s an idea that can change the way we think about public transport.

This was the opposite of the co-operative ideal.

Deregulation created a free-for-all as the market for local bus services in this country became one of the most profit-driven and privatised in Europe, if not the world. It’s curious, given Scotland’s steadfast opposition to Thatcherism, that the SNP should be among the last adherents of deregulation.

That profit-driven, privatised, deregulated system might have worked on some level for the owners of the big bus companies but certainly isn’t working for passengers. It isn’t working for the passengers who are expected to take a back seat while the bus barons chase profits.It isn’t working for the communities where bus services are not just the main form of public transport but often the only form of public transport. And it isn’t working for us collectively as a society because it isn’t delivering the modern, integrated transport system we really need to get Scotland moving.

I want to focus on the model of deregulation that we have in Scotland right now and I want to suggest ways of moving to a fairer system.

Since the SNP took office in 2007, the number of bus journeys has fallen by 74 million. It’s now at a record low. In total, 66 million vehicle kilometres have been stripped out of the bus network. 66 million kilometres! That’s further away than Mars. It’s out of this world.

Meanwhile, in London buses are still regulated to a high standard and are well integrated with the rest of the public transport network. That’s not to say the London bus network doesn’t face challenges, like congestion or the state of the wider economy, but most people would accept that the regulated London bus market delivers some of the best outcomes for passengers we could hope for. Equally, the publicly-owned Lothian Buses is bucking the trend and sustaining patronage, delivering what I believe are hands-down the best bus services in Scotland.

While commercial operators reduce their networks and abandon some towns and villages altogether, Lothian Buses is actually using profitable routes to cross-subsidise other services and bring buses back to places the private sector had given up on. The lesson I take from our experience of regulation in London and public ownership in Lothian, is this…

Where there is greater public control of bus services, passengers can and do get a better deal.

It is for that reason that I am delighted to support the People’s Bus Campaign today.

This campaign really resonates with people across in Scotland. Why? Because bus travel is the single most popular mode of public transport in this country. In every part of Scotland, there are people who need buses, who depend on buses. There are people all over Scotland who are anxious about the future of their local bus services and they are angry when those services are put at risk or taken away.

Yes, at the simplest level, buses are about getting from A to B but think about what ‘A to B’ actually means to passengers. It could mean going to work, to college, to a hospital appointment or to the Job Centre. It could be the difference between getting a job or not, picking up your prescription or not. And in some parts of the country, particularly rural Scotland, there is nothing simple about getting from A to B. The needs of those people, people, who rely on bus services, should count for more than the profits of the big bus companies.

That’s why we need more public control.

As a constructive Opposition, we twice attempted to legislate for bus regulation. Twice the SNP failed to support us. But a change could be coming. A new consensus could be emerging. The Tory Bus Bill now before the UK Parliament is by no means perfect. Let’s be clear about that.

It has been interesting, however, to see Labour, Lib Dem and Tory peers in the House of Lords debating, not the principle of whether the deregulated market should be suspended in different parts of England but, which local authorities could actually make re-regulating the bus market work in practice. If even the Tories are prepared to consider some form of re-regulation, however limited, then how can the SNP justify leaving Scotland with the most deregulated bus market in the UK.

And if the Tories and the Lib Dems reflect on the positions their parties have taken down south and reconsider the principle of bus regulation in Scotland, then doesn’t the prospect of a Parliamentary majority begin to look a lot more realistic than it did just a few months ago. The Scottish Government’s opposition to bus regulation has never been so untenable. The case for change has never been so compelling.

Now that the SNP are finally proposing to bring forward a new Transport Bill at some point in the current term of the Parliament, we have a fresh opportunity to build the case for an alternative to the status quo. We have to make sure that bus regulation, common ownership and passenger participation are put firmly on the agenda.

As a minimum, we should seek to make it a legal requirement that bus companies consult with communities before making substantial service changes or withdrawing valued and vital bus routes altogether. It is far too easy for bus companies to walk away from routes that people depend on and that has to change.

From East Lothian to Fife to Glasgow and beyond, we have seen bus operators up and down Scotland cut back routes and leave passengers behind, ignoring the wishes of local people. Bus operators should be bound to a statutory Code of Conduct to raise standards across the industry. Bus users should be given a real voice over the future of services with a strengthened, passenger-powered watchdog.

But, if we want to achieve deeper, meaningful, lasting change then we should also give our public transport authorities the power to go even further.

Everywhere in Scotland should have automatic, London-style bus franchising powers. That means the power to replace the deregulated market with a system where the public sector specifies services bus companies can provide. And if democratically-accountable transport authorities are to have more of a role in procuring bus services, then passengers, workers and local communities should have more of an input into those decisions as well.

The privatised system is dominated by just four large bus companies and a patchwork of local monopolies. The market is broken and it doesn’t serve passengers well. Local bus services are not a luxury which the private sector might choose to provide but an essential public service many people cannot do without and an asset of real value to the community. The principle of public transport as a public service is a noble one.

While the bus barons might struggle with it, there are plenty in the municipal, community and not-for-profit sectors who do not. That is why I believe the time has come to fundamentally rethink the role of markets in the provision of bus services and to identify the opportunities that common ownership presents.

Whether that’s defending the right of councils to establish municipal bus companies or extending the scope of the Community Empowerment Act, we stand for better, fairer alternatives to a broken bus market dominated by the big four.

After 30 years of deregulation, it’s time to say ‘enough is enough’.

It’s time to transform bus services in this country.

It’s time for buses run for people, not profit.

It’s time to put passengers first.

It’s time for the People’s Bus.

Click here to back the Scottish People’s Bus Campaign