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Why we need public ownership of our buses in Scotland

When public services are run for profit, it’s the needs of the people who use it that are considered last, says REBECCA MENZIES

SCOTLAND faces a crisis on two fronts. On one hand, we have the global climate emergency and on the other, rising poverty and inequality. 

Public transport, particularly buses, can play a positive and vital role in responses to both, but not in their current privatised state.  

Privatisation of our transport was meant to foster healthy competition and give passengers a better service. The complete opposite has happened.  

Since the Transport Act 1986 which saw Thatcher put swathes of our public transport up for sale, bus patronage has been in continual decline. 

The latest figures show that in Scotland from 2007/8 to 2017/8 there have been 100 million fewer journeys by bus, while car ownership has continued to rise.  

One of the major issues that bus operators cite for the decline in passengers is congestion. To address this, the Scottish government is investing £500 million in bus infrastructure projects which include bus priority lanes on the motorway. This is very welcome, especially if it links more rural areas to cities.  

However, bus priority lanes do nothing for those whose services have been cut or reduced because they are not profitable. 

Whole communities are being left isolated because they don’t make enough money for private operators whose interests lie with their shareholders. 

That’s the problem with running a public service for profit, it’s the needs of the people who use it that are considered last.  

Buses are a lifeline for local communities. Unlike trains that predominantly link big towns and cities, used mainly by commuters, buses are supposed to enable you to get to work, to hospital, to training or education or to the local supermarket. They can tackle social isolation but so many are being priced out and left behind.  

There’s massive regional inequality in our bus system. Lothian buses, the only council to hold onto its publicly owned fleet, consistently ranks as highest in customer satisfaction. 

A fare in Edinburgh costs just £1.70 with a daily cap of £4 compared with Glasgow’s £2.50 and £4.60 respectively. 

Having an affordable bus network can lift people out of poverty, however research by the Poverty and Inequality Commission has shown that the opposite is happening in Scotland. 

People are forced into car ownership they can’t afford, they miss out on employment opportunities because the travel is too expensive. 

Others are trapped in in-work poverty, paying ludicrous amounts on two buses. In Glasgow that can cost around £10 a day if you have to switch operators.  

If we are serious about tackling the climate emergency and inequality, then we need to create a bus network that is so affordable and easy to use that people don’t have to use their car every day. 

A recent report by Sustrans found the majority of people support not needing to use their car every day and want the government to make it easier to do so.  

The privatised market model of running buses has failed. It has failed passengers and workers.  

There are constant rumbles of strikes at both First and McGill’s and even publicly owned Lothian buses has had issues with the treatment of staff. 

That is why we need democratic public ownership with workers and passengers represented on the board and actively involved in key decision-making roles so that there is accountability.  

Deregulation is also expensive. In Scotland, public money is funding private operators who cut our services and hike our fares. Last year we handed over £385 million in passenger revenue, and £299m in funding from local and central government (Transport Scotland).   

If we had publicly owned buses across Scotland, we could reinvest profits into creating a better service like Lothian Buses, which returned £7 million to the council last year.   

We have the power to change the way our buses work. With public ownership we can create timetables that reflect the times people actually travel and link up with other modes of travel, we can create affordable daily caps on fares and ensure there are region-wide standards of accessibility for people with disabilities.  

New powers in the Transport Bill give councils the powers to run their own buses. What we need now is central government to give councils the proper funding to create publicly owned, affordable, reliable bus companies that can integrate with the rest of our transport network.  

Public ownership of our bus network might be an upfront short-term cost but the long-term gains for communities and the environment are priceless.  


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