Falkirk Council: Bring buses back under local authority control urges councillor

A Falkirk councillor says more must be done to improve local bus services that too often mean people are unable to get to work, shops and health appointments on time.

By Kirsty Paterson, Local Democracy Reporter
Thursday, 14th July 2022, 5:05 pm
Updated Thursday, 14th July 2022, 10:23 pm

Conservative councillor Claire Mackie-Brown warned that the issue was being increasingly raised by residents facing regular problems as a result of unreliable services.

And she admitted solutions could include taking up the Scottish Government’s offer to allow local authorities to take over bus services – or even running less frequent but more reliable services.

She said: “We urgently need a reliable bus service. People have to be able to get to their work or go and do their shopping.”

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A councillor wants buses brought under council control

FirstBus, which runs most local services, has been plagued by driver shortages and plummeting passenger numbers since the start of the pandemic and there are now constant complaints from passengers about erratic, unreliable services.

Councillor Mackie-Brown, who was elected in May, says her constituents in the Upper Braes are particularly badly affected.

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At her first surgery in Whitecross, every single person attending complained about the buses while many others have messaged or phoned with similar tales.

Current roadworks that have closed the route from Slamannan to Limerigg have made the situation even worse, with a shuttle bus service that finishes at 5pm and doesn’t run on Sundays.

Ms Mackie-Brown said: “We’ve had quite a few situations where we’ve had people stranded or having to try to make their own way up to Limerigg from Slamannan because of this. My concern is that once the roadworks are finished, is that how it’s going to remain, given the pressures that FirstBus are under?”

The councillor recently had a meeting with First Bus’ managing director Duncan Cameron to raise the issues – but while she felt it was constructive, she is under no illusions that things are going to get better any time soon.

She said: “I understand the pressures they are under and the reasons for the reduction in service but we still need to know what plan is in place to try and resolve this?”

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on bus services, as numbers of passengers crashed to record lows. First Bus said that industry-wide driver shortages and a decline in passenger numbers compared to pre-pandemic levels is affecting all bus operators.

A spokesperson said: “We are taking significant steps across a number of different areas to try and attract new drivers to the industry whilst also further improving conditions for our current drivers to retain them within the business.

“While passenger numbers continue to rise following the pandemic, they are still some way short of where they were in March 2020.”

Many of the problems were evident long before the pandemic – several Sunday services were severely restricted or axed altogether for some of the more rural communities. However, in the past year, services have become increasingly erratic and unreliable.

Ms Mackie-Brown said: “I made a suggestion that they reduce the number of buses but make sure that those buses are actually running. It would be a limited service but the buses would at least meet the demand of the customer.”

Falkirk Council spends nearly £1 million a year on bus services, through contracts – currently for 19 different services – that go out to tender. In February, councillors agreed to shave £100,000 off the funding for bus services, leading to fears that services will decline even further.

First Bus has been given some breathing space with the announcement that Scottish Government funding for bus operators – which was due to stop entirely – will now reduce from August 14 and end altogether in October.

A spokesperson said: “This continuation of funding will allow us additional time to tackle the major issues affecting us currently including continuing to increase passenger numbers and reduce driver shortages.”

Another possible option could see the council bring some bus services under their control, after a recent Scottish Government announcement confirmed that councils will be given the opportunity to run services themselves.

The idea was supported by Falkirk West MSP Michael Matheson in the run up to the election in 2021 when he defended the SNP’s record on public transport.

He said: “Through the recently passed Transport Act, local authorities have the power to run bus services locally, for the benefit of communities and I look forward to Falkirk Council taking plans forward to do just that – something Scottish Labour talked about but never delivered.”

Falkirk’s Labour group leader, Anne Hannah, says her party’s manifesto contained a pledge to bring buses back into public ownership and it’s something she is keen to look at carefully in the next session of Falkirk Council.

Ms Mackie-Brown said that she is happy to look carefully at the question of the local authority taking control.

She said: “I would welcome anything that would improve services. I have a lot of rural communities people are having to get off one bus then onto another bus just to get into Falkirk – or they’re standing at the bus stop for an hour and the bus doesn’t turn up.

“First Bus and Falkirk Council should be working together – we can’t just have no buses turning up or no buses on a Sunday. The buses aren’t being used because they are unreliable and the buses are unreliable because people aren’t using the buses – it’s a Catch 22.”

Cosla, the umbrella group for councils, welcomed the new legislation but made it clear that there would need to be funding for councils to be able to take advantage.

Councillor Paul Garner, spokesperson for Economic Development said: We will review the new legislation and consider all the potential implications and opportunities for the Falkirk area with regard to bus services.”