Pat Rafferty: Fanciful or radical? Labour's bus plans make sense for workers

Writing for The Red Robin, Unite's Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty examines the case for a nationalised bus system, arguing that the current system leaves modern workers behind.

Much has been made of Richard Leonard’s keynote speech at the recent Scottish Labour party conference when he announced a Labour government would introduce free bus travel across Scotland. His proposals have been dismissed as a fanciful idea by some and a radical and bold ambition by others.

In considering whether an alternative, free, municipally provided bus service is financially viable, we need to consider the basic running costs versus the present subsidy, and the case for common ownership.

In 2017-2018 Scottish bus companies received £298 million in subsidy from local and central Government, yet neither the Scottish Government or travelling public have any real say on how, where or when buses are run. The decision to operate a route is ultimately a decision made by the bus company and as they are required to give shareholders a return, they will pick the profitable routes and run buses at the most profitable times whether they meet the needs of the community or not. When they don’t, the Scottish Government are called upon to subsidise the route. It’s a win/win for the bus companies.

The Scottish Government has also set stringent targets for the transition to more sustainable, low-carbon lifestyles including a reduction in car journey’s and a halt to highly polluting emissions. One way to cut emissions is to cut car usage and to do that you would need a sustainable and reliable alternative.

Given the climate change challenge, calls for parking levies and proposals for Low Emission Zones in our large cities have been put forward as a way to tackle climate change. Both have proved  controversial and already some local authorities have said they will not implement a levy. It is proposed that the levy would be wholly met by employers, but as was the case in Nottingham, it can (and inevitably would) be passed on to employees.

Bus companies apparently have an outdated idea of how the economy functions. It is now 24/7. Yet currently bus timetables favour those living in an urban environment, working between 8.00 a.m. and 6 p.m. and off on weekends.  Travel out with these times is often sporadic or non-existent as is the case in many rural communities.

More and more employment contracts require workers to be available at night and at weekends and precarious and shift work often means working out with so-called ‘normal’ hours. 

Unite has played a key role in highlighting the existing failings of the present bus network in Scotland.  We set up the Haud the Bus campaign to raise awareness around, and campaign against, the continued withdrawal of so-called unprofitable bus routes operated by private sector bus companies, which has left communities across the country, from West Lothian and Aberdeenshire to the Borders, abandoned.

These communities are cut off from services and opportunities at the whim of the bus companies without sufficient or meaningful engagement with the people it will affect.

There are many within society that are feeling left behind. They are struggling financially and socially as a result of policies of austerity which have strangled public services and created broken communities, isolating people.  Our most vulnerable citizens including older people, young people and those with a disability are those more likely to use the bus to get around. 

Unite sees municipal ownership of the bus network as providing social value as well as economic value, and a key essential component to increasing bus provision where it is needed, and in the longer term, doing so at no cost to the passenger. If we want to encourage these groups to take up new opportunities including work, they will need to know they are not restricted by the costs of participating. 

Fare-free buses operate in the French channel port of Dunkirk, a city of 200,000 people. There, free bus travel has proved an overwhelming success, with a 50% increase in passenger numbers on some routes, and almost 85% on others. Bus routes and bus fleets have been extended and include green buses run on natural gas.

Prior to free buses, fares raised only around 10% of the network’s €47m ($41.6m) annual running costs - 30% came from local government and 60% from a public transport levy on organisations and public bodies with more than 11 employees. (By increasing the transport tax slightly to account for the 10% needed there was no requirement to increase taxes for households.) Free buses run by the public sector have allowed people on low incomes to travel further afield for work rather than being constrained by their inability to afford the cost of travel.

The information presently in the public domain shows the Dunkirk model is working. However while the devil may be in the detail, it is certainly a model worth further consideration.

Accessible, affordable and sustainable transport offers people the ability to fully participate in the economy. It also offers access to opportunities in employment, education, health and leisure. All recognised as important in good mental and physical health.

There are also precedents for public ownership of transport in Scotland. Scotland’s ferry network is run by Caledonian MacBrayne a wholly owned subsidiary of the Scottish Government.

The decision by the Scottish Government to step in to purchase Prestwick Airport for £1 in 2013 was made on the grounds it was a ‘strategic infrastructure asset’ airport and to save jobs.

Scotland’s rail network - previously fully publicly owned - has also been heavily subsidised by the Scottish Government and following complaints and failings over service provision and delays the First Minister announced she was prepared to take the railways back into public ownership.

As in Dunkirk, free travel could be funded using the money the Government currently spends on subsidising concessionary travel as well as the subsidy provided to bus companies to run less profitable bus routes and services.

Other income could be raised through improved job opportunities leading to increasing levels of employment which would result in increased tax revenue.  Or, as is the case in Dunkirk, an alternative to the car parking levy could be a tax on employers to assist employees travel to work.

We would have less car journeys resulting in less wear and tear on our roads – repairs to potholes cost Scottish taxpayers £68m in 2017. Less pollution will help to attain climate change targets and would ultimately improve the country’s overall physical health and, with access to social and recreational activities, an overall healthier nation, reducing costs to the NHS.

These benefits sit firmly within the Climate Change Challenge Fund allowing funds to be  diverted from this fund towards running a free service.

The discussions around a Transient Tourist Tax continue and a percentage of this could also be used to subsidise bus services.

It is clear there are many ways to fund free municipally owned buses. The hurdle may not be funding it, but the desire and political will to implement it.

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