Scottish transport bill adds to pressure

Bus franchising has been put firmly on the Scottish political agenda with reports that transport minister Humza Yousaf is preparing a new transport bill that will enable local authorities to franchise bus networks.

The move follows the publication last month of bus passenger figures for Scotland for 2015/16 which showed a fall of 2 per cent on the previous year and a drop of 16 per cent since 2007/8. The results have been seized upon by opponents of the current deregulated system as part of their long-running campaign to bring bus operations under public control.

The bus and coach statistics published by Transport Scotland show an overall total of 409 million passenger journeys in 2015/16, falling from 416 million the previous year and five per cent down on five years ago. Among the regions, the largest fall over the past five years is in the South West and Strathclyde with a 12 per cent decline. By contrast, the South East, which includes Edinburgh, home of council-owned Lothian Buses, showed a small rise of one per cent in 2015/16 compared to the previous year, and a two per cent rise compared to five years ago.

The figures for bus vehicle km show a similar pattern with the data for the whole of Scotland indicating a one per cent fall in 2015/16 compared to the previous year, and a five per cent fall compared to five years ago. The South West and Strathclyde was again the poorest performer, falling four per cent year-on-year and 11 per cent compared to five years ago. And the South East was one per cent up year-on-year and level with the figures for five years ago.

Inevitably, campaigners wasted no time in using the data, including Unite which is running its ‘Haud the Bus’ campaign to promote public ownership. 

Unite Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty said: “These numbers show that the Scottish Government is failing bus passengers”.

And the SNP minister has now joined the fray, indicating that the large bus groups and independents will have an uphill battle if they want to avoid some form of regulatory change in Scotland, echoing the franchising developments that are likely to follow the passage of the Bus Services bill for England. 

“The bus passenger figures are bad news,” says Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf.

“I am not happy to preside over this decline so I want to at least put in place the measures that will reverse the trajectory.

“The franchising idea would give a voice to bus users at a local level.”

Yousaf stresses that the proposals involve putting in place enabling legislation, rather than being prescriptive, “so it is local authorities coming up with the ideas. They could franchise their entire area, a certain city or town.

“What they would also do is take those socially necessary services, which might not be commercially viable, bundle or package them together, and then they might be an attractive proposition to franchise.”

The minister pointed to Lothian Buses’ success in bucking the trend of declining passenger numbers that could be repeated elsewhere.

“People talk about the legal dubiety around whether other local authorities could create a similar model to Lothian Buses,” adds Yousaf. “What I will look to do in this Bill is remove this uncertainty so if a local authority wants to go down this road then they can.

“This is not re-regulation. Wholesale re-regulation is not the answer to reversing the decline, and private companies of course would be allowed to bid for franchises along with any publicly-owned operator.”

It is also thought that a new Scottish Transport Bill would require operators to share data about services, in keeping with the requirements of the Bus Services Bill currently going through the Westminster parliament.

“We welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to making public regulation and ownership of buses part of the transport bill,” says Rafferty. “But it’s a cautious welcome – we’ll obviously have to wait and see what the proposals are in detail."

Aberdeen, home of First Group, may be the setting for one of the early battles about council-run bus companies with Labour councillors reacting to a recent service cut by First by proposing a new council-run bus operation, although the proposals may not win the support of the SNP in the city.

What is clear is that the relative perceived success of Lothian Buses means that Edinburgh is acting as a beacon for those arguing for regulatory change; in a similar way that English metropolitan authorities have used London as an exemplar. Any dispassionate analysis, however, is likely to show that the Scottish capital has particular characteristics which don’t necessarily translate to other Scottish cities and particularly smaller towns and hinterlands. But if bus industry leaders in Scotland think this will be enough to put the campaigners back in their box, they are sorely mistaken. 

The fateful move in autumn 2014 by the then chancellor George Osborne to dangle a carrot in front of Manchester politicians in his desire to devolve central government responsibilities, has changed the debate forever. The franchising genie is now clearly out of the bottle. And you know what happens when you let the genie out of the bottle; it is almost impossible to stuff it back in.