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The battle for our buses

Since Scotland’s buses were deregulated more than 30 years ago, fares have soared and passenger numbers have slumped. It’s time for Glasgow to follow Manchester and Liverpool and take back control of its bus network, says SUSAN GALLOWAY

THE 40,000 delegates to Cop26 left Glasgow having enjoyed the benefit of a free integrated public transport system during their stay. 

They each had an Oyster-style travelcard allowing them to travel for free, hopping on and off the subway, trains and a fleet of electric buses brought in to run every five minutes to the conference venue. It was a service the citizens of Glasgow can only dream of.

The reality is that Scotland’s public transport system is a national disgrace. The powers for change which came with the Scottish Parliament have been squandered. 

Despite more than 20 years of devolution, successive governments have completely failed to undo the damage caused by Tory deregulation and privatisation. 

Lifeline ferry services are in crisis and the government’s plan for renationalising rail involves decimating train services. 

Adding to the shame is the situation with buses, still responsible for the greatest share of passenger journeys. 

Providing first-class bus services as part of a fully integrated public transport system is essential to tackle climate change. Private ownership and control is now the major barrier to making buses a realistic alternative to private cars.  

Since Scotland’s buses were deregulated more than 30 years ago, private bus companies have had complete control over routes, timetables and fares. 

Bus fares have soared and passenger numbers have slumped. Only profitable routes are provided, with other routes cut at will. 

Starved of funding, local authorities and regional transport partnerships have been held over a barrel by the bus companies to maintain socially necessary routes. 

First Group profits in the year before Covid were £300 million. Stagecoach’s profits were £87m after tax with the two biggest shareholders Amiprise Financial (US) and Anne Gloag each receiving over £25m. 

It’s a different story for bus drivers, who earn around £10-12 per hour, and for everyone reliant on bus services. A single fare in Glasgow is £2.50 compared to £1.70 in Edinburgh which has a publicly owned bus company, Lothian Buses.  

In a recent public consultation, communities told Glasgow City Council that the high cost of bus fares restricts their choice on where they can shop, what jobs they can apply for and how easily they can access healthcare or leisure. 

Lack of services in evenings and at weekends in some parts of Glasgow creates long journey times, increases costs, makes people feel unsafe, and limits their access to services and facilities.  

Asylum-seekers said they have to choose between food and travel. People with disabilities said they feel excluded and forgotten in terms of transport. 

For all these reasons Professor Philip Alston, the former UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, has said that, on human rights grounds, bus services in Scotland must be returned to public control. 

That is now possible. The Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 finally provides the new powers that we need to take a different approach. 

For the first time since 1986, we can now reregulate the bus network, through a region-wide “franchising” framework, and set up new publicly owned bus companies for each region to start to take over routes. 

We want Glasgow to be the first to follow Manchester and Liverpool and decide to take back control of its bus network. 

However, the Scottish government has acted pre-emptively to stop this happening. Before the new powers are even enacted, the government has coerced local authorities and regional transport partnerships into forming Bus Service Improvement Partnerships (BSIPs) with the private operators. 

Local authorities are prevented from accessing the £500m government fund for bus infrastructure improvements unless they form a BSIP. 

As a result shadow BSIPs with bus operators are already in place across Scotland. This is a calculated attempt by the government to impose its own preferred strategy for the bus sector. 

It’s a strategy which has failed for the past 20 years. Adding insult to injury the SNP-Green coalition has announced a “review” of bus fares (the Fares-Fair review).

But we believe we can win on this. The campaign to take back our buses is gathering momentum in Scotland. Nearly 20,000 people have signed Get Glasgow Moving’s petitions in favour of proper governance and regulation over our public transport network and a new publicly owned bus company for the Greater Glasgow region. In August the Scottish TUC launched a Scotland-wide campaign for buses to be taken back into public control. 

Trade unions, public transport and environmental campaigns are all calling on the Scottish government to back the new powers in the Transport Act with the necessary resources and funding.  

In September the leaders of local authority Labour groups in Strathclyde region issued a statement of intent to work together to create a new publicly controlled bus network. 

Like this year’s mayoral contests in Manchester and West Yorkshire, Scotland’s local elections in May 2022 are set to be a battle for our buses.

Susan Galloway is a campaigner with Get Glasgow Moving, a grassroots passenger-led public transport campaign set up five years ago with the support of Unite the Union.

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