Below is a copy of my speech to the Scottish Labour Party Conference on Sunday 4th March 2012. If you would like to join the campaign to improve Scotland’s bus services, then please join the Facebook page Scotland Needs Better Buses.
Conference, bus services in Scotland are failing our communities.
The free-market, competition-based approached to bus services is leaving more and more communities isolated. And the increasing cost of fares disadvantages the poorest most.
Where services do exist, they are often infrequent and withdrawn completely in the evenings and at the weekends.
In the current, difficult economic conditions, many small bus companies are going under or being bought over. And some of our largest bus companies are withdrawing services at an alarming rate.
The SNP Government’s changes to the Bus Services Operators Grant are making matters worse.
Although, perhaps not surprisingly, they affect the services run by Mr Souter’s company, Stagecoach, less than the more urban services run by other companies. But I am sure that is purely coincidental!
Conference, when we consider that over 70% of all public transport journeys are undertaken by bus, then we have to conclude that we have an emerging public transport crisis.
The time has come for us in the Labour Party to admit that the deregulated bus industry has failed. We need a plan to provide the bus services that our people need to access jobs and education.
There is no point building employment and training opportunities for people in our communities, if they cannot access them because they can’t afford a car and there are no bus services when and where they need them.
As a start, I am pleased that Labour controlled Strathclyde Partnership for Transport is putting forward a ten point action plan for better buses.
These measures include
• allowing subsidised bus services to run alongside commercial services where it benefits communities
• Introducing a new minimum operation period for bus services of 180 days to improve stability
• And introducing new criteria for the payment of Bus Services Operators Grant which would result in it only being paid when it enhances service provision.
These measure and others can be introduced fairly swiftly by the Scottish Government, either within the current legislation or with fairly minor changes to regulations. But conference, we need to go further.
SPT is currently examining the viability of introducing a franchise model within the Strathclyde area.
Such a model already exists in London, where TFL have combined a number of London bus routes and put them out to franchise.
This has the significant advantage of ensuring that it is the local, democratically elected public transport authority that establishes the bus networks. As a result these networks respond to local transport needs rather than being driven solely by profit. The franchise model also results in local bus services benefitting from the profits made by the more commercially viable routes – albeit in an indirect way.
However, even this model results in the seepage of profits to company shareholders. I would rather all profits were reinvested in more and better bus services. This would assist us in our drive to deliver the full employment that Johann spoke about yesterday.
This is why, I believe, that Scottish Labour must aim to bring bus services back into public ownership and public control.
For too long we have been hesitant to defend public ownership of vital services and assets. We have been tentative and played it safe.
Conference, if last May taught us anything, it surely taught us that we need to be bold and we need to be radical in our policies. We need to inspire, not just Party members, but the people of Scotland.
In North Lanarkshire, we are the biggest public landlord in Scotland and I am convinced that our tenants receive a better service and a better standard of housing because their locally elected members have a direct say in how it is run and developed.
We should be looking to derive these same benefits in our bus services.
I accept that bringing bus services back into public ownership will be an expensive process. But then, so is maintaining Trident, or stepping in to bail out the banks. All we need is a strong political commitment.
Conference, providing good quality bus services is a matter of social justice.
It is a key plank in the effort to reduce car use and protect the environment. And it is an essential part of our ambition to rebuild full employment and provide access to training.
Let us be bold in this ambition and bring public transport back to the public.