Richard Leonard: We pledge universal free bus travel for all Scots

Ambitious plans to deliver “universal” free bus travel for all Scots have been unveiled by Labour leader Richard Leonard in a keynote address to party members.

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard delivers his keynote speech. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

A radical scheme to target Scotland’s biggest landowners, including the Duke of Buccleuch, at Holyrood to deliver “land justice” has also been set out.

The Scottish Labour leader was making the keynote address to the party’s spring conference in Dundee yesterday.

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And after a difficult week for Labour which left the party on the back foot over anti-Semitism, plunging poll numbers and a lack of clarity over its position on Brexit, Leonard sought to shift the focus back to policy with significant announcements.

The Labour leader pledged to bring about “real change” that Scots are demanding. An extension to the current national free bus travel scheme to under 25s was pledged – with a long-term goal of universal free bus travel.

Leonard warned that communities across Scotland have been left “stranded” by a fall in bus routes, while fares have been rising.

“The deregulation of bus services has failed us,” Leonard told delegates yesterday.

“Fleet sizes are down. Staff numbers are down. Journeys are down. Down by ten per cent in the last five years alone.

“But today, to those communities that have seen their much-needed routes removed, I say that Scottish Labour has an answer. We believe that clean, affordable and reliable bus services are the mark of a civilised nation.”

The free bus pass concession should be extended to all under-25s within the lifetime of the current parliament, Leonard said yesterday.

“If the SNP won’t do it, we will do it on day one of an incoming Labour government,” Leonard said.

This would cost about £13.5 million a year.

And he added: “Then we will go further.

“We will build a proper bus network that connects Scotland’s communities. From that collective strength and that commitment to being a truly public service we will shift the balance from shareholder profit to public investment.

“So Labour will build a free bus network to serve the whole of Scotland.”

The party is seeking to shift the way bus services are run to emulate the model of Lothian Buses in Edinburgh, widely seen as the best in Scotland, with standard adult fares of £1.70 to travel anywhere in the capital. Labour is seeking to build a network of similar municipal bus operators around the country which would freeze out private operators then standardise fares nationwide.

The longer term ambition – over a five to ten-year period – would be to increase subsidy levels for the publicly owned services to make services free across Scotland.

The overall costs of universal free services was not set out by Labour, but this would largely be achieved through general taxes where Leonard has pledged to hike income tax.

Leonard also pledged to take on the “lack of justice” in land ownership patterns.

“Our land justice reforms will take on the vested interests. Like the Danish billionaire, Anders Povlsen, and the Duke of Buccleuch,” he added.

“We will use the powers of our parliament already has to deliver land justice, the cause the SNP has ignored.”

Labour has sunk nine points behind the Tories on 19 per cent in the latest poll by Panelbase last week – and 22 points behind the SNP. But Leonard insisted that the party was getting back to “where it should have been” in a speech which pledged to put workers’ rights at the forefront of his policy agenda.

He said: “The SNP tell us we shouldn’t talk about workers’ rights because it’s reserved. But these very same practices like the use of umbrella companies are commonplace. Not only in the private sector but on public contracts funded by the Scottish Government.

“Which is why it is about time that we had a Scottish Government that was prepared to use its powers, including through public procurement, to drive up employment standards.”

A future Labour government at Holyrood would seek devolution of employment rights with a UK-wide “floor” on conditions, Leonard added.

But the SNP’s Dundee East MSP Shona Robison branded Labour “out of touch”.

She said: “They’re more interested in fighting each other rather than fighting for the people of Scotland.

“In recent weeks Labour voted against an extra £729 million for Scotland’s health service and an £8 billion investment in Scottish education. They can’t match the SNP’s ambition when it comes to delivering for public services.

“Both Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard seem willing to crash us out of the EU in just 20 days’ time – throwing thousands of jobs on the scrapheap and damaging our NHS.”