Last Chance for Scotland’s Buses? A Call For Solidarity from all over the UK

The future of Scotland’s bus services hangs in the balance as a vital consultation on the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 closes this week.

Transport Scotland is about to implement new bus legislation, which is supposed to give local authorities the right to choose between bus partnerships, franchising and municipal ownership.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a world class bus network, capable of meeting climate change targets and fixing chronic social inequalities. But Transport Scotland has already thrown a huge obstacle in its path with the ‘Bus Partnership Fund’, which makes forming a deregulated ‘bus partnership’ a condition of access to £500 million bus infrastructure funding.

This is a brazen attempt to revive the failed policy of bus deregulation, and a clear imitation of England’s National Bus Strategy, which is also coercing local authorities into signing up to an accelerated ‘bus partnership’ program despite the overwhelming economic case for public control and ownership instead.

There are just two days left until the consultation closes and there is something you can do to help, wherever you are in the UK. Please take a few seconds to respond through the Scottish TUC’s email action here.

We expected better from Scotland

On the surface, the Scottish government seems to have a more enlightened view of public transport than England. In March this year, they acted decisively to bring their railway into public ownership, stating the need for integrated, stable and secure services; especially in the post-covid context. Scotland has repeatedly gone further in equality legislation too, for example by implementing the socio-economic duty of the Equality Act (the Fairer Scotland Duty).

At first glance, their bus legislation also seems to be superior, offering the choice for local authorities to run their own municipal bus companies (still banned in England).  But these powers were inserted at the last minute due to the relentless campaigning of Get Glasgow Moving, who achieved cross-party support for this amendment, despite the resistance of the Scottish government. Take a closer look and you’ll see that it’s a near-identical copy of England’s Bus Services Act (2017). This legislation has already been proven to be inadequate to the task, and has been widely condemned by organisations such as Centre for Cities, the CPRE, the Transport Select Committee and the National Audit Office.

The new powers for municipal ownership have so far been completely neglected, while Scotland’s bus franchising process is actually even more dysfunctional than England. While the Bus Services Act (2017) improved the democratic process by giving the final say to elected mayors, Scotland intends to repeat the process used for ‘Advanced Quality Partnerships’, which relies on an arbitrary and unelected panel instead. It’s the exact approach behind Tyne and Wear’s notorious failed attempt to franchise their buses in 2015 – which means Scotland will now be relying on an outdated, wasteful and undemocratic process that even England has long since rejected. Meanwhile, Transport Scotland’s ‘Bus Partnership Fund’ has been pressuring local authorities to sign up to deregulated ‘bus partnerships’ since long before the consultation even began, reflecting the coercive approach of England’s ‘National Bus Strategy’.

However, there is still time for Scotland to get off England’s track and carve their own path for bus services – now their only hope of achieving their social, economic and climate goals.

Our message to Transport Scotland

Public control as the default position

With the £500 million ‘Bus Partnership Fund’, the Scottish government has effectively committed to continued bus deregulation as their default position, with no possible economic case behind it. Their stance completely rules out the possibility of cross-subsidy; as well as the integration and growth of Scotland’s bus networks. In an era where bus deregulation has been shown universally to have failed, the only acceptable defaults for such vast sums of public spending are public control and ownership. These are the only models through which local authorities will be able to meet the National Transport Strategy’s four strategic goals: reducing inequality, taking climate action, delivering inclusive economic growth, and improving health and wellbeing.

Grasp economic opportunities

Public ownership is the only model that is able to actually generate wealth for communities, therefore providing the strongest possible incentive and return on all future bus funding. A 2016 report by Transport for Quality of Life estimated that this would bring back over £500 million per year to the British taxpayer. Scotland already boasts one of the most successful municipal bus companies in the UK – Lothian Buses, which because it survived the process of deregulation is now able to return £6 million to the City of Edinburgh Council per year. Serious, large scale programs of public ownership could bring huge opportunities for bus manufacturing, engineering, digital technology and employment, especially in the context of a ‘Green New Deal’. It’s not just the existing wealth that needs to be captured for local communities – it’s the value of all emerging technologies.

Prioritise equality and human rights

Scotland’s policy on bus partnerships is now the source of international controversy, after being condemned by the former UN Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston, earlier this year. His report concluded that partnerships are a ‘tried-and-failed’ approach and that continuing with this ‘extreme form of bus privatisation’ will leave Scotland in breach of at least three human rights obligations. Rural and low income populations are among the worst casualties of bus deregulation, and yet their needs are being entirely neglected due to a ‘Bus Partnership Fund’ that is almost entirely focused on the urban context and restoring bus companies to profit. As the Equality and Human Rights Commission warned in 2019, local authorities, Regional Transport Authorities and Transport Scotland are failing to embed their Public Sector Equality Duty into their decision-making on transport.

Take climate commitments seriously

Scotland’s National Transport Strategy commits to reduce car use by 20% by 2030. With less than a decade left to achieve this goal, the long-term approach to modal shift should be required to be every local authority’s first consideration. However, the restrictions of ‘bus partnerships’ actively work against this goal in every possible way. Continued deregulation gives local authorities a duty to maintain and grow the deregulated market, preventing them from cross-subsidising, growing and integrating their bus networks. Only through public control and ownership is it possible to explore the policies that have a chance of achieving long-term modal shift; such as guaranteed hourly bus services to every village, free public transport, or even generally reducing fares.

Devolution and Democracy

Though the new legislation offers three options for bus services, local authorities have already been pushed into beginning the bus partnership process. This means they are currently being denied the free and fair choice between these options – an injustice that must urgently be addressed by Transport Scotland in its guidance on the new powers, as well as the Bus Partnership Fund. This entire episode is a standout example of the over-centralisation that has held back and chronically underfunded the seven Regional Transport Partnerships, which should be a key tool in helping to deliver better models of bus services and bringing these decisions into increasing democratic control.

Scotland’s Bus Strategy

It’s time that Scotland’s bus policy was brought into line with the goals of the National Transport Strategy, which commits the Scottish government to prioritising climate and equality in all their transport decisions. Transport Scotland should urgently provide practical and financial support to every local authority who wishes to pursue public control and ownership, restoring them with the choice that has been denied through the ‘Bus Partnership Fund’. Though the Fund’s £500 million capital investment is welcome, its value must be captured and protected for the public benefit, as these investments are worth significantly less within a deregulated system. In judging all bus funding and governance decisions, the limited and outdated idea of a ‘business case’ should be replaced with a ‘public sector value’ test that accurately reflects the huge range of socio-economic and climate benefits delivered by bus services.

Take Action Now

It takes just a few seconds to support the STUC’s email response to the Transport Scotland consultation.

To respond in detail to the consultation, click here.

The consultation closes on Wednesday 6th October.

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