Why are the Scottish Government Holding Back Public Ownership of Scotland’s Buses?

The people of First Bus Land have had enough!

When the self-selected elite of European football announced that they would be breaking away and forming their own “super league” last week, the ensuing uproar meant the whole thing collapsed within about 48 hours. The cartel-like set-up – that we were told would enhance quality, bring financial benefits and transform the game for the benefit of everyone – was widely viewed as the despotic carve-up it clearly was, and the illusion couldn’t hold.

A few days before that, when Glasgow’s private bus companies announced they would be teaming up to form something called the “Glas-Go Bus Operator Alliance” to enhance quality, deliver value and transform buses for everyone… no one really noticed. Strange as it may seen though – and while you’re probably not going to see Lionel Messi aboard the 38 to Shawlands any time soon – the two announcements were symptomatic of the same problem. In both cases it was recognised that something was broken, but the only solution they’ve been able to come up with involves a deeper entrenchment of their own power. The stunning strategy – “more of the same, but somehow worse” – will, it’s hoped, turn around flagging profits after the uncertainty of the pandemic. Naturally, it is being carried out under the guise of partnership and delivering for customers.

When the Tories broke up Scotland’s publicly owned bus companies in the 1980s and opened services up to competition, the prevailing logic of Thatcherism was that everything could now be left to the market. New operators would emerge, with more routes, lower fares, and legions of happy bus customers from Helmsdale to Hawick and everywhere in between. In 1988, the Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind triumphantly told the House of Commons that the system was working wonders, just as the government was pushing ahead with a sell-off of the remaining public operators.

What actually happened was a steady process of monopolisation. Headline grabbing “bus wars” saw rival firms in open warfare, with the large companies running cheaper or even free buses to destroy rivals. Stagecoach even had a special cut price subsidiary, Magic Bus, with mystical powers to appear on rival firm’s routes for just long enough to push them out of business. The 80s bonfire of bus regulation has led directly to where we are today, with a handful of untouchable private operators – a “Glas-go Bus Operator Not Very Super League”, if you will – free to hike fares and axe routes as they wish, while still demanding public subsidies for a diminishing service. Meanwhile, patronage has tumbled and satisfaction is at an all time low – a recent consultation by Glasgow City Council found that just 16% of the city’s bus users believe services are meeting their needs.

The corporate carve-up that literally no one asked for

Two years ago, the first, long overdue steps to remedy that situation began to be taken, when the Scottish Parliament passed legislation that would allow Scotland’s buses to pass back into public control. After a lot of badgering from campaigners like Get Glasgow Moving and opposition politicians, the SNP’s 2019 Transport Act included two key provisions. Firstly, councils would be allowed to set up their own bus companies, like Lothian Buses, which was able to resist privatisation in the 1980s, and remains far and away Scotland’s most successful bus service, topping polls for customer satisfaction and value for money. Councils have been also been given powers to introduce franchising, where private companies would bid to run buses, with council determining routes, fares and timetables. This is what happens in London, where all services are overseen by Transport for London, and the Oyster card has meant seamless integration between rail, tube and bus since its introduction nearly 20 (!) years ago. Last month, Greater Manchester became the first place in the UK to commit to regulating its bus network since deregulation in 1986, although Stagecoach have already dragged this into the courts.

So… nearly two years after the new Scottish powers passed into law, how close are we to seeing real public control being reintroduced to local bus services? Despite featuring in the 2017 manifesto that the current SNP Glasgow City Council administration were elected on, the council’s official five year strategic plan, and as a recommendation of the expert Connectivity Commission that reported in 2019, the answer is: not very far.

Much of the blame lies with the Scottish Government and its agency Transport Scotland. With no political pressure from on high, intertia has set in. A consultation on guidance for using the powers has not even launched yet, meaning it could be more than a year before local authorities know how and what they can do, and what kind of support (particularly financial) will be available. In the meantime, they are being actively incentivised – with a £500m carrot being dangled in front of them – into the meaningless void of “partnership working” with the same private operators who are much to blame for the current mess of Scotland’s bus services.

Efforts to preserve the status quo are now preceeding at pace. The recent launch of the “Glas-Go Bus Operator Alliance” is part of this story. The Alliance has published a manifesto full of promises of improvements, although most are things that are already happening (like free travel for under-22s and the introduction of electric buses) or are dependent on factors well beyond the influence of the private bus companies. They have promised improvements to their ‘seamless’ cross-operator ticketing, although given that the cost of a weekly ticket on the multi-operator scheme is 30% more expensive than the equivalent First Weekly pass, it’s hard to see the appeal. The headline commitment is for a 20% improvement in speeds and a 25% increase in passengers over five years (From what base year? They don’t specify!) – again, not something the bus operators can deliver by themselves.

Get Glasgow Moving supporters demanding change on our bus network

However, the private operator alliance is a component of a broader group, the Glasgow Bus Partnership (its minutes are available here!), which also includes the 8 local authorities in the Glasgow City Region and other stakeholders, of which we’ll come to. Transport Scotland have made forming such a partnership part of the essential criteria for accessing the £500m fund to allow buses to run more efficiently, such as creating bus gates and priority lanes.

Friends of the Earth Scotland have said that “the Scottish Government is using this much-needed funding stream to prevent regulation and public ownership”. The creation of Bus Service Improvement Partnerships was one of three options included in the Transport Act, and easily the most tame. Yet by forcing councils down this route before guidance on the other options (franchising services or launching their own companies) has even been developed, they are making it a foregone conclusion.

While the SNP have made the long overdue renationalisation of Scotrail one of the central themes of their current election campaign, they are actively inhibiting even tentative steps to reintroduce public control to the bus network. Their new manifesto contains nothing on regulation and only a vague reference to “local authorities delivering different bus services”. In place of this, it mentions the £500m bribe to maintain the status quo, the policy of extending free travel to under-22s (a concession to the Greens in the last budget), and makes a promise that “a majority” of Scotland’s bus fleet will be electric by 2023 – a claim that’s repeated twice, so presumably not a typo. At present, just 1% of Scotland’s bus fleet is electric, and the existing subsidy to bring in more electric buses will deliver 215 by 2023. There are 4,400 service buses in Scotland, so 215 is a long way from “a majority”.

The SNP’s faulty office calculator aside, unfortunately all the indications are that public-private bus partnerships are set to become the favoured instrument for tackling Scotland’s bus crisis – by default. So what are they actually going to solve, and how? Last year’s council consultation – the same one that identified an appalling 16% satisfaction with bus services – found the main problems were the high cost of fares, a lack of integrated/smart ticketing, and a failure to link up different modes of transport, like rail and bus. None of these can be properly addressed by the partnership – indeed, the only reference to fares in the operator manifesto is that they want more public subsidy to ensure they can be ‘kept lower’. If we’re already handing over huge sums of public money to the operators – from paying much of the cost of their new electric buses to keeping them afloat through Covid-grants (nearly £300m in 2020!) – then why not just nationalise them?

As for existing and the hoped for new passengers, who – it is easy to forget – this is all meant to be for the benefit of, each of the bus partnerships in Scotland has the same alleged “passenger representative”, an employee of a group called Bus Users. Despite their name, Bus Users are actually a dispute resolution service for the private bus industry, who they receive a quarter of their funding from (the rest coming from government). Unsurprisingly, Bus Users “have reservations” and “remain unconvinced” about the case for regulating buses, despite massive public support from er, actual bus users (80%, in the case of a Manchester consultation, and there is a clear majority in Scotland too).

What about those who actually drive the buses, who have a fairly crucial role in making them run on time? Nope – they don’t have any representation either! Maybe it was transport unions’ consistent support for bus regulation that ruled them out from involvement or, possibly, it didn’t even cross the partnership’s minds to invite them. The Bus Service Improvement Partnerships are in reality a closed shop, dominated by the interests of the private bus monopolies, yet now mandated, and probably funded, to deliver a sizeable chunk of Scottish transport (and climate) policy.

There are no shortage of pipedreams when it comes to improving public transport in Glasgow, and compared to the likes of the Glasgow Metro rapid transit project (which now has national support – but is still a long way from breaking ground) to the neverending debate over extending the Subway, buses can struggle to capture the imagination. But for all the focus on rail – and the justified excitement about Scotrail’s move into public ownership – buses still account for three times as many journeys as trains.

The modal share of all journeys travelled in Scotland in 2019 (Source: Transport Scotland)

According to Glasgow’s dominant bus operator First, it’s “practical changes on the ground for the people of Glasgow that are needed, not a stale and out of date regulatory debate.” Here at ATF we would tend to disagree – questions of ownership, power and accountability are crucial to the functioning of any part of society, whether that’s football clubs or local buses. Scotland’s private bus operators have had three decades to show they can deliver a good service, and it’s been a resounding failure.

But while securing the power for local authorities to tackle this issue is all very well, if it isn’t resourced and worse still, actively undermined, then what’s the point? We’ve already had the infuriating debacle of rent control laws that are impossible for any council to implement – let’s not allow the same mistakes to happen with buses.

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Further Reading:

Can the SNP Really Extend the Glasgow Subway?

Revealed: Serco Hire SNP-Linked Lobbyist in Bid to Privatise CalMac

Crossrail Glasgow Hits Buffers as 700 Flats Approved on Vital Rail Site

What About Brian Souter?

Who’s Been Selling Scotland’s Water?

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