Dave Watson: Lothian's brilliant buses are a model for services

The Transport Bill published before the parliamentary recess is an opportunity to take a radical look at integrated ­transport in Scotland, even if the ­current proposals fall somewhat short.
Dave Watson is the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON ScotlandDave Watson is the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland
Dave Watson is the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland

Tackling the appalling air quality in our cities should be a government priority, given it could be contributing to around 15,000 early deaths in Scotland every year. The Bill puts the regulatory structure in place to
introduce low emission zones. This is welcome, but the key challenge is real action to cut emissions. We don’t need more plans about plans. Other provisions on integrated ticketing, ending (some) double parking and another go at regulating road works are also worthy measures.

A key issue in the Bill will be the ­regulation and delivery of bus ­services. The Bill extends the powers of local authorities to run buses and develop bus partnership plans. The aim is to allow councils to act more flexibility to improve services, either by working with bus companies or by stepping in and running services themselves.

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Local buses are the most frequently used mode of public transport in Scotland. With 393 million passengers on local bus services, more ­journeys are made by local ­buses than by rail.

However, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of journeys, down from 487 million in 2007. There has been a 10 per cent reduction in the past five years, which is double the reduction in Great Britain as a whole. Part of the reason has to be that bus travel is 65 per cent more expensive in 2018 than in 2008, at a time when real household incomes have been falling. There has also been a 16 per cent reduction in the number of ­buses in operation.

Something is going seriously wrong in Scotland. While bus passengers are losing out the companies are not. They have just raised prices to cope with the decline in services. In any case, 43 per cent of bus company revenue comes directly from local or central government through grants and concessionary travel reimbursement.

Bus companies argue that they offer competition. However, the Competition Commission’s 2011 report into local bus services said, “head to head competition between bus operators is uncommon”, because of “customer conduct”. The worst, most irrational thing these difficult customers did was to ignore the choice of operators the free market had to offer, opting instead “to board the first bus to their destination that arrives at their bus stop” – there’s a shock!

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While the Bill talks about the role of local authorities, the bus companies view it as an opportunity. That’s because the Bill will allow private operators to cherry pick the profitable routes, leaving councils to pick up the bill for the rest. A bill they don’t have the funds to meet.

In contrast, the public want ­government to go in the opposite direction. A recent poll shows clear public support for buses to be run by public operators – only 15 per cent of Scots believe they should be run by private companies.

In this context we don’t need local partnerships, we need local public ownership. Publicly-owned ­Lothian Buses is the best operator in Scotland, even getting the middle classes on to the bus. Levels of customer satisfaction for Lothian Buses are the 
highest in the industry and the publicly-owned company recently returned £5.5 million to the public purse.

This is one of the models we could adopt in Scotland, together with ­other non-profit initiatives like ­co-operatives. As the Co-operative Party’s People’s Bus campaign shows, across the UK, co-operative, social enterprise and other forms of not-for-profit bus operators are proving that it’s possible to run bus services that are affordable and responsive to the needs of local people.

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If we want to get really, really serious about cutting vehicle emissions, how about something radical like free transit? This is an idea being piloted in Germany by “the end of this year at the latest”. Five cities across 
western Germany are involved, including the former capital, Bonn, and industrial cities Essen and 
Mannheim. It won’t be easy, but has some constructive links to a new industrial strategy given the demand it would create for electric or hydrogen buses.

It is difficult to accurately cost free local transit because a key ­element would be estimating increased demand. Based on current funding and demand, it could be somewhere between £200m and £300m per annum and that doesn’t take account the savings from not having to pay for dividends and expensive borrowing. Not an impossible sum by any means and we should recognise the preventative spending benefits from ­emission reductions.

Scotland needs a more integrated public transport system that results in a meaningful shift away from car use. Re-regulating buses and more public and community ownership would be helpful in doing this. We need green travel plans at work, with incentives for lower energy transport, cycling, car-share, public transport, walking and the use of ­lower emissions vehicles. We need a radical transport policy, not another dabble with market mechanisms.

Dave Watson is the head of policy and public affairs at UNISON Scotland.