Gina Davidson: Haven’t we suffered enough, Mr Brown?

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THE most popular form of public transport in Scotland is the bus. Now that might come as a surprise to those in Edinburgh who love to have a moan about the grumpy driver on the No 11, the time they have to wait before three come at once and the price of the fares.

Such folk will have been delighted to learn yesterday that the latter look likely to rise again by another ten pence, making a journey in Edinburgh cost £1.40. Well, it gives the moaning a more topical edge.

But if they cast their minds back to the old LRT days and the buses which ran round the city then – along with the green SMT buses which went to such far-flung places as Midlothian – with their ripped leather seats, very little suspension, the stench of cigarette smoke mingling with the belching petrol fumes, the heat from the engine which would burn the back of your legs if you sat up the back on the lower deck, they would surely agree the vast improvement since is worth a few extra ten pences.

No-one likes to see prices rise, but if it means that one of the best bus companies in the UK can continue to run less profitable routes and invest in greener, cleaner buses then, again, it’s worth it.

However, the fact that a profitable firm such as Lothian Buses is being forced to put up its fares for the second time in two years because of changes to a government grant which blatantly favours rural operators over urban ones is a slap in the face to the people of Edinburgh, who have already had enough of others making a mess of the city’s public transport system.

Obviously, bus companies in Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen will be similarly affected by the cut in their Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) of somewhere between 20 and 40 per cent – no-one knows for sure as, although it’s public money being handed out, the amounts awarded are classed as “commercially sensitive”. But it’s only Edinburgh’s bus firm which has had revenue affected through the re- routing of buses because of tram works, added time to journeys because of tram works and falling passenger numbers because, you guessed it, of the tram works.

The SNP government has never been a fan of the tram idea and has stuck to its guns when it’s come to awarding any more public money to the vastly over-budget scheme. Fair enough. But does it then have to have a go at our bus company as well, which is trying its best during very difficult times – and as a result force it into inflicting a price rise on passengers who are, in the main, according to studies of such things, generally in the lower paid wage bracket.

Of course the government and its Transport Minister, Keith Brown, will say that the decision to cut subsidies to the bus firms – which was £255.3 million this year, including grants to cover costs for concessionary fares and free travel which accounts for around 60 per cent of that money – is being forced upon them because of cuts to its budget from Westminster. However, the decision to change the conditions for the awarding of BSOG, from the amount of fuel used to kilometres travelled to favour rural areas, is plainly discriminatory.

Mr Brown will, no doubt, contend that it’s not his decision which is putting up fares, but a decision which is solely that of Lothian Buses. It’s the same weaselly political nonsense which has seen local government services cut because of the council tax freeze, which councils had to sign up to or their budgets would be cut even further. If you take money away from a service such as public transport – a service which we’re supposed to be using more of, not less – then it will have to make it up from somewhere else, namely its users.

I was under the impression that we were all supposed to be encouraged to use public transport more often. Lothian Buses has done its best with massive investment in new buses, but if it is forced to continually put fares up because of skewed government priorities, the passenger numbers will fall further and so the vicious circle will continue. And as bus use is directly related to household income, with the less well-off using them more, then its the poorest in our city who will hit by fare rises the hardest.

However, the one slight chink of silver to this dark cloud could be if Edinburgh City Council reduces the money it expects to receive from Lothian Buses this year. By not demanding the full £3m dividend it could help keep fares down.

And wouldn’t that be a good thing for councillors to brag about on our doorsteps when the council election campaign gets into full swing?