Alison Johnstone: We’re being taken for a ride by stance on buses

The success of the 113 shows how public service is a better motivation than pure profit. Picture: Ian Rutherford
The success of the 113 shows how public service is a better motivation than pure profit. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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‘For a while I had to stop going to events, to educational stuff to do research and I’ve even turned down work in Edinburgh.”

The words of Helen Jeffrey. Helen and her husband Rab, a retired couple from Bo’ness near Linlithgow, who have made the headlines with their plan to run a bus service between their town and Edinburgh since cuts in public funding have reduced local services.

Lothians Green MSP Alison Johnstone MSP

Lothians Green MSP Alison Johnstone MSP

“I’ve even thought about thumbing a lift to Edinburgh because there’s so many commuters, single-occupancy, that drive past our former bus stop,” Helen says. Isn’t it ludicrous that it’s come to this? Those of us who live within the city limits or close by tend to thank our lucky stars for Lothian Buses, which is envied elsewhere in Scotland. It’s majority-owned by local councils, so is run in the public interest.

Scotland’s best bus service, as voted for at the Scottish Transport Awards last year, is the 113 between the Western General and Pencaitland. Taken over by Lothian after private firm First withdrew, it shows how public service is a better motivation than pure profit.

Even so, East Lothian-based Prentice Coaches recently scooped the Top Independent Operator at the UK Bus Awards, so there are private firms out there with the right attitude.

Last week the Unite union handed in a petition to the Scottish Parliament highlighting that the number of bus routes has fallen by 21 per cent since 2006 and journeys are down 15 per cent since 2007, while fares are up 18 per cent in five years. The petition called for the currently unregulated bus sector to be regulated again. Looking at those figures, and considering the impact on communities such as Bo’ness, it’s hard to disagree.

My Green MSP colleague John Finnie recently published research showing that some commuters are spending up to almost 18 per cent of their income getting from A to B.

Re-regulation of buses, perhaps following the Lothian model, would help stop companies cherry-picking profitable routes and leaving communities stranded.

The Scottish Government has so far resisted calls for regulation but there will be a Transport Bill in Parliament during this session, and Green MSPs will seek to use this to deliver better buses for local communities.

In the meantime, we need to see Scottish ministers overhauling their spending priorities. In the draft budget for 2017/18 the biggest winner is motorways and trunk roads, which is getting a massive £147 million increase, while spending on bus services and concessionary fares is set to fall by £7m.

But don’t buses need roads? Indeed they do, but let’s see investment shift away from building more and towards repairing what we’ve got. We all know the state of the roads. And it’s well-established that road maintenance is better for local economies than road creation.

And as for the Jeffreys in Bo’ness, I wish them the best of luck with their venture. Their determination should send a clear signal that public transport has been overlooked long enough.

Alison Johnstone is a Scottish Green MSP for Lothian