‘Thatcher legacy must be reversed’

The X86 bus through the district was one of the routes its operator cut this year. Picture: Michael Gillen
The X86 bus through the district was one of the routes its operator cut this year. Picture: Michael Gillen
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Last month marked 30 years since the Tories disastrously privatised Britain’s buses – the failed legacy of deregulation is that fares have risen while bus usage has fallen by more than a third.

And Falkirk has seen the worse excesses of this broken bus market.

The 1985 Transport Act came into effect on October 26, 1986, deregulating the bus industry. The Tories argued deregulation would deliver greater competition, but the market is now dominated by four big bus operators, with Falkirk being run by First as their private monopoly.

It is curious, given Scotland’s steadfast opposition to Thatcherism, that the SNP government in Edinburgh should be among the last adherents to that model.

This 30-year long experiment with deregulation has all but destroyed our once publicly-owned integrated networks of bus and train services

Bus remains the most popular form of public transport in Scotland. Yet, as Transport Scotland’s own figures have shown, since 2007 the number of bus journeys has dropped by 74 million and 66 million vehicle kilometres have been slashed from routes.

While my campaign to get lower bus prices in Falkirk helped introduce the daily and weekly pass, over the past five years single fares have still gone up by 18 per cent on current prices.

Deregulation has not worked for passengers and there is a compelling case for intervention. Twice in the past nine years Scottish Labour has brought forward plans that would have delivered re-regulation and prevented the further decline of bus services. Twice the SNP Scottish Government has failed to support us.

Meanwhile at Westminster, the Bus Services Bill making its way through Parliament would give city mayors and councils in England new powers to suspend indefinitely the deregulated market.

The Tory Bus Bill is by no means perfect, but the renewed prospect of public control of bus services in some of England’s major cities shows just how far Scotland has fallen behind the regulatory curve.

The tide is turning, a consensus is emerging and the SNP’s position on bus regulation has simply become untenable.

Right now in Scotland bus companies can slash services with little or no consultation, as we have seen in Falkirk, whilst passengers are expected to take a back seat as the bus barons chase profits.

Thatcher’s deregulated market is not working but there are alternatives – proven, popular, democratically accountable alternatives. There are better, fairer ways of delivering bus services in Scotland, with a genuine transport policy that puts passengers first.

Edinburgh shows the way

If you look at Edinburgh and the Lothians, councils managed to keep Lothian Buses in public ownership and now provide the best bus services in Scotland.

Edinburgh has proven that public control of buses can and does work. We can secure a better deal for passengers and deliver a first class service to the travelling public without relying on the market.

There are many models that should be looked – the London-style bus franchising, not-for-profit or Unite’s common ownership approach.