Imagine going into Marks and Spencer on Princes Street and offering a fiver at the checkout to pay for £4.50 worth of groceries only to be told “Sorry, we don’t give change”. Not only that but the receipt you are given doesn’t mention your £5.00 and the change you are due, only the £4.50 that the items cost. If you wanted to complain you would have no evidence of the money you handed over and it would be your word against that of the checkout assistant. Customers would soon let the store know how unhappy they are; custom would move to other stores and Trading Standards would be involved.
But, come out of the store onto Princes Street and get on a Lothian Bus and this is exactly what you face. Edinburgh residents are very familiar with the sight of visitors hunting for change in unfamiliar currency, friendly passengers trying to help out and drivers trying to defend the indefensible. Not only is there a “no change” policy but also no evidence is provided of any excess paid and there is no refund system and no credit notes are issued that could be used to pay for future journeys. If the fare is £4.00 but you pay with a fiver, £1.00 of your money literally goes into a black hole. Time and emotion is wasted and the city’s positive profile takes another knock.
What happens to the additional revenue gained by this policy and how much is collected in this way? Last year Lothian Buses estimated the excess payments at £194k. The company has previously attempted to justify the retention of this money on the grounds, firstly, that it balances unpaid fares from cheating customers and, secondly, that it contributes towards the company’s charitable giving. These arguments might be acceptable if Lothian Buses were an elected government, but Lothian Buses is not empowered to take our money and distribute it as it wishes. £194k is a pinprick in its overall revenues but it is still income that should be accounted for and taxed in a regular and legal way.
Of course, Lothian Buses will say that it makes it clear to passengers that no change is given; but making this clear doesn’t make it right. Why doesn’t the Trading Standards Department investigate this practice? Is it because both organisations are emanations of the same city council?
This problem might well disappear when we finally achieve a cashless economy but, in the meanwhile, technologies exist to give change on public transport and to provide proper receipts. Visitors express their surprise at the system here but residents seem passive in the face of all the inconvenience the no change policy causes. Should Edinburgh’s residents show more solidarity by actively objecting to the continuation of this unhelpful and, possibly, unlawful practice?
Damian Killeen is resident of Edinburgh and a frequent bus user