Free bus services can and do work, but the SNP insists on making petty bureaucratic objections in defence of the private-led status quo, writes Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard.
Margaret Thatcher is reported to have once said that “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure”. And for many years the bus has been the poor relation of transport policy. Yet the humble bus, dismissed by Thatcher and thrown to the forces of deregulation and privatisation, is still a vital tool in changing how our transport system can work.
The Thatcherites certainly had their sights on downgrading public transport in favour of the car. Thatcher herself ensured that bus services were deregulated and then sold off. Although it was under John Major’s premiership that the ten companies of the Scottish Bus Group were eventually privatised.
Services that were once a source of municipal pride – and provided a reliable, frequent service for all – suffered. The result is that our cities are now peppered with multiple operators running different routes, with far too little co-ordination or effective accountability. And rural Scotland has seen a diminution of a vital public service. Because those private companies will always favour the most profitable routes at the expense of the rest.
Thatcher’s successor John Major also went where even she had not dared and privatised the railways too. These policies over time have been text-book examples of failure. Fares have risen, services are less reliable, and the profit system at the heart of it all benefits the shareholders and the company directors rather than the travelling public. Only last week it was revealed that refunds handed out to Scotrail passengers due to delays have soared, up 52 per cent compared to the previous year.
Of course, it is possible to do things differently. Bus networks can be expanded much more rapidly than those forms of public transport that require large amounts of physical infrastructure. The current mismatch of bus services across Scotland is a problem, but it is one that can be overcome.
Communities, particularly in rural areas, have been left stranded. The deregulation of bus services has failed us. Fleet sizes, staff numbers and journeys are down.
So the policy I want to see is a combination of public ownership, rapid expansion, and free services. Bus travel for the over-60s has been one of the finest achievements of the Scottish Parliament. We should build on it for all. The first stage of this should be an extension of the free bus pass to all under-25s. The Scottish Parliament Information Centre estimate that a broad indication of the possible cost of this is in the region of £13.5 million.
Beyond that, we should develop a proper bus network that connects Scotland’s communities, with public ownership used as a lever to expand and improve services. This will shift the balance from shareholder profit to public investment and so build a free bus network to serve the whole of Scotland.
There are numerous examples around the world showing how an improved bus service is possible and works for the wider community. Close to home, the municipally owned Lothian Buses is a success story. And that success strengthens the case for wider public transport reform to extend municipal ownership across the country.
Nottingham City Transport, the largest local authority-owned operator in England, has been found by Transport Focus to have some of the highest customer satisfaction ratings of any bus operator in the UK. Buses have also been key to the devolved London Mayoral model, helping the city to achieve a modal shift from cars to public transport, walking and cycling. A core element of this has been the rapid expansion of the bus service, adding services, increasing frequency, strengthening bus priority measures and reducing fares.
The Scottish bus workers’ union Unite has recently pointed out that entirely fare-free buses operate in the French channel port of Dunkirk, a city of 200,000 people. Unite’s Scottish Secretary Pat Rafferty argues that in Dunkirk “free bus travel has proved an overwhelming success, with a 50 per cent increase in passenger numbers on some routes, and almost 85 per cent on others”.
Free buses run by the public sector in Dunkirk have meant that people on low incomes have been able to travel further afield for work rather than being constrained by cost.
All of these examples show there is a lot to do.
After I last made reference in this column to building a modern, municipal bus service for Scotland, including expanding free travel first to the under 25s, it was perhaps not a surprise that SNP ministers, right up to the First Minister, dismissed the idea on what were very flimsy grounds indeed. Because the truth is that the failure of the present Scottish Government to think and act imaginatively about public transport is one of its greatest failings.
We should have higher sights and better examples for our public transport than the ministerial inertia that dominates the Scottish Government. Free bus services are a desirable and achievable objective. Compare Aneurin Bevan’s determined, practical, passionate pursuit to create a free universal health service to the can’t-do attitude of the SNP.
Faced with the proposition for a free bus service, the SNP retreats into mild and petty bureaucratic objections that merely defend the private-led status quo.
Faced with the full might of the Tory party and the entrenched opposition of the representatives of the medical professions and other vested interests, Bevan and the Labour Government never gave up – they pursued every avenue relentlessly and with great tenacity.
As Bevan wrote in his book In Place Of Fear: “The prophets of disaster have been proved false, as they so often are when new and ambitious ventures are projected.” This is the reforming spirit that we need for our public services once more, and it is one that Labour will draw on to make our public transport work.