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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Dalzell Historical Industrial Transaction, Economy (North-east Scotland), Ending the Not Proven Verdict, Motion Without Notice, Protecting Rural Bus Services


Contents


Protecting Rural Bus Services

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-02426, in the name of Mark Ruskell, on protecting rural bus services. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I invite members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the importance of local bus services, which are often a lifeline that enables communities to access essential services; acknowledges that rural communities are especially vulnerable to the loss of routes, such as the X53 service that connects Clackmannanshire villages to Kinross and Stirling; recognises the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on patronage levels, and the impact of driver shortages on service provision but also notes that the rollout of the Concessionary Bus Travel Scheme for under-22s in January 2022 is likely to increase bus patronage, and further notes calls on bus operators to meet the needs of all communities they serve by withdrawing planned service cuts.

18:04  

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I thank members from across the chamber who have signed my motion to secure the debate, and I look forward to everyone’s contributions and the minister’s response. I know that two members will probably make their contributions in other ways, and it is a timely reminder that accessibility in our society is about much more than transport.

Let me start with the good news: we are on the verge of a bus revival across Scotland, with free travel for under-22s set to become a reality in the new year. That will open up transformative opportunities for young people and their families, and it will also significantly increase the number of people getting on buses, improving the viability of those services. It represents an unprecedented level of investment in the bus sector at a financially challenging time for the Scottish Government.

However, free bus travel can work only where bus services actually exist. If services across Scotland are being withdrawn or reduced in frequency or are facing repeated cancellations, ticket cost is a secondary concern. Every person in Scotland deserves affordable, reliable and accessible public transport services, regardless of where they live, but it is often rural communities that find themselves entirely reliant on bus services for public transport. In my Mid Scotland and Fife region, unacceptable cuts are coming just weeks before the extension of free travel, including the complete cancellation of the X53 bus, which connects Clackmannanshire with Stirling and Kinross, as well as a reduction in frequency on key routes around Stirling.

It is not just about rural routes. Stagecoach has warned of changes to its intercity service between Perth and Edinburgh at a time when ScotRail is also consulting on a timetable change that will unacceptably extend journey times between the two cities. We are seeing the same pattern across the rest of Scotland, with the suspension of services in central Scotland, same-day service cancellations in Glasgow, college buses cut in Kirkcudbright, and services cut in Aberdeenshire earlier this year.

I am sure that members will have their own stories to share. First, though, I want to share with the chamber the voices of my constituents who have been in touch to explain exactly why services like the X53 are so important and why protecting rural bus services truly matters. I have been contacted by a former bus driver who is now registered blind and therefore cannot drive buses or a car any more. He relies on the bus as his main form of transport to access medical appointments and to get to the local shops. He is hoping to retrain in a new industry based at Stirling University, to which he would have travelled on the X53, but, without that service, he will be forced to travel by private taxi, which is far more expensive and polluting.

I have also been contacted by a single parent with two young children who relies on the X53 for her children to see their grandparents, for childcare and to get to work. In other words, three generations of the same family depend on this service to support one another. The family do not have a private car, nor can they afford to pay for taxis, and they had been looking forward to the children making use of next year’s expansion of free bus travel.

I have also been contacted by a constituent living in Powmill, a village that is already cut off from public transport. They already walk a couple of miles to Rumbling Bridge to catch the X53 and, without the service, they will have to walk more than four miles from Powmill to Dollar to catch alternative transport to the hospital. That is simply unacceptable.

My final example is a family living in Dollar. Their household has one car that a family member uses to get to work in Glasgow, and the X53 provides an essential service for the rest of the household when the car is not available. Without it, the family’s only public transport route to Stirling would involve at least two buses, and, because both services run only every two hours, trying to get a connecting bus is incredibly difficult. As the family told me,

“You would be out all day and it just wouldn’t work.”

The impact of losing the X53 is severe. We are talking about vulnerable people being further isolated from essential services, young people losing their independence and people being forced to use private cars at a time when we need to be reducing car kilometres.

I have spoken to bus operators who have said that service cancellations, withdrawals and reductions are due to the on-going impact of Covid-19 on bus patronage, as well a serious shortage of bus drivers. Certainly, at the height of the stay-at-home measures, concessionary bus journeys were down by 90 per cent. However, by this time last year, patronage was improving, and data from September show that it is recovering further and is now down only by about a third compared to the pre-pandemic baseline.

Omicron poses a further challenge. Over the past week, more public transport staff have been off sick. That has led to short-term cancellations that have left many of my constituents stranded, especially the long-suffering users of the X10 to Balfron. However, the evidence shows that, as restrictions lift, patronage starts to return, so now cannot be the time to slash bus services.

The bus industry is also facing a serious challenge in driver recruitment, with a 14 per cent vacancy rate across the sector in Scotland. That is up by 200 per cent on 2019 figures, and it represents around 1,000 bus driver vacancies.

A perfect storm of Brexit, the end of free movement, drivers retraining as heavy goods vehicle operators, and delays in driver training applications at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency are leading to a United Kingdom-wide shortage of drivers who can operate large vehicles.

I know that bus operators and the Government are working hard to address those shortages. FirstBus has told me that it is launching a recruitment campaign and is working with the Scottish Refugee Council to encourage new Scots to train as bus drivers. The expansion of concessionary travel will, no doubt, provide an opportunity to encourage more young people to join the workforce at this critical and exciting time. However, in the here and now, the choices that bus operators face are stark.

We have been told by FirstBus that, because of driver shortages, priority will now be given to the most-used services with the highest passenger numbers. That will disproportionately impact rural services and cement transport poverty in already poorly served communities.

There is no excuse for leaving rural communities behind. Protecting rural bus services is about addressing the climate emergency, addressing inequalities and building a green recovery from Covid. For too long, rural bus services have been particularly vulnerable to the boom-and-bust cycle of private operators. It is time to break the cycle.

I hope that the Minister for Transport agrees that we need to redouble our efforts to protect lifeline rural routes and take urgent action to resolve workforce issues. I also hope that he will be able to outline what the Scottish Government can do to help to build a resilient bus network in Scotland that leaves no one behind.

I gently remind anybody who wants to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak button now.

18:12  

Jackie Dunbar (Aberdeen Donside) (SNP)

Thank you for the little reminder earlier, Presiding Officer.

I congratulate Mark Ruskell on, and thank him for, securing this members’ business debate.

Access to adequate bus services in rural areas is vital to ensure that communities are not isolated and have access to the goods and services that they need. As someone who grew up in the country—fae Peterheid tae Nairn and aawye in atween—I understand the importance of regular, reliable and affordable local bus services.

A lot of folk in rural areas dinna drive and have to rely on public transport to get their messages, to get to their work, to attend medical appointments, and to meet up with their friends and family. Without vital bus services, those folks would be completely isolated.

My Aberdeen Donside constituency stretches to the north edge of the city. A number of folk commute from rural locations, and they travel through my constituency. That means that many urban residents benefit from rural buses passing through. We can therefore see that country buses, as we call them in the north-east, are beneficial not just to country fowk but to the city fowk and aa.

Transport providers between our rural and urban locations should work together to ensure consistent and affordable routes and to create a cohesive bus network that works for all their passengers. Without a reliable bus service, rural residents become reliant on single-driver cars to provide access to services. As Scotland moves towards net zero, we should be promoting the use of public transport and ensuring that it is not only fit for purpose but affordable, so that we can reduce the use of cars. Our aim is to reduce car journeys, but that can be done only by providing affordable and reliable alternatives. Public transport should be that alternative.

Although my Aberdeen Donside constituency is not strictly rural, we have a mix of urban areas and suburban communities that are not that well connected to the city, such as Kingswells. We have been fighting for a number of years against the removal of the Kingswells bus services, especially those at weekends. We have seen not only that service reduced in recent years, but the start of isolation from the city for an entire community. If it had not been for vital investment in bus companies by Transport Scotland during the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure that a level of bus service remained, despite reduced passenger numbers and social distancing measures, we could have seen entire communities completely cut off without any travel options.

I am pleased to see the investment by the Scottish Government in free bus travel for under-22s from January 2022. That will make bus travel accessible for all, reducing the barriers created by the cost of fares, and it should increase bus patronage. The investment has the potential to make a huge impact on how our young folk travel. Taking the bus, taking their driving test or moving into the toon—as I did when I was 16—is the choice that they have. It is important to promote sustainable bus travel to younger people to change behaviour as we move towards more environmentally friendly modes of transport.

Let us make getting the bus easier and affordable for all.

18:16  

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

The importance of local bus services, which can be a lifeline for rural communities, cannot be overestimated. Mark Ruskell’s motion acknowledges that rural communities are especially vulnerable to the loss of routes.

The X53, which covers the wee county of Clackmannanshire, Stirling and Kinross, was the catalyst for this debate. At its most recent full council meeting, Stirling Council proposed an action plan to protect bus services, and I suggest that Clackmannanshire Council do something similar.

The debilitating effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the impact of previous lockdowns and controls on numbers of customers, has led to less use of buses and other businesses. We have already heard about initiatives to ensure that people get free bus travel, but a bus is required before that can be taken up. If the X53 service goes, individuals will be left with no bus to use.

We are dealing with management decisions. It is management who decide which routes are lesser used or more susceptible to change. It is essential that bus operators work to meet the requirements of all the communities in which they operate. This is the second time that we have had difficulties with the X53 bus route, which is mentioned in the motion. There was talk of its removal 18 months ago. It was reinstated then, but it looks as though the route will be removed this time.

Many individuals have told me about serious difficulties, especially for those who are disabled, elderly or young. One resident told me about the effect of changes to bus services for someone who, like her, is disabled and single. She currently uses the X53 to get to Stirling, so she might no longer be able to get to her employment. Although she used a car in the past, she can no longer do so following cancer surgery. The bus service is her lifeline to employment. The anxiety of ensuring that she can keep her employment without the support of a bus service is also very difficult. Another resident who does not drive moved to Muckhart specifically because they knew they could catch the bus that goes from Alloa to Stirling. If that service is removed, there will be no link between Kinross and Stirling.

Many people have described First Bus’s planned removal of that route as callous. It will cause difficulties not only in the local area but across the central belt. If the X53 is removed from 10 January, some pupils may not be able to get to school. That will have a major impact. There will also be no service from Muckhart to Dollar, Stirling and Kinross. New housing development is taking place in Muckhart and there are other developments across the region. Such housing normally attracts young families who are interested in living in the community, but that may wane if people cannot get to work or school.

In a debate that I called for, we talked about Strathclyde Partnership for Transport and decided that a task force should be set up to look at vital services. In a debate in the previous session, I was fully supportive when we talked about dealing with cuts to bus services. Back then, I asserted the vital importance of ensuring greater urgency on the issue.

We have already heard that the pandemic has had a devastating effect on many routes in the region, so it is particularly important that we focus on the task force that was set up and its urgent recommendations. I hope that the minister will touch on that point, because, last year, the Scottish Parliament backed plans for local authorities to run their own services. At that time, I certainly believed that we needed greater protection for under-threat services in order to help local people.

My colleague Liz Smith has done a huge amount of work in supporting buses across Mid Scotland and Fife. At the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—there was an emphasis on the issue.

It is vital that FirstBus reconsiders its decision on the X53. I encourage Stirling and Clackmannanshire councils to use the powers that they have to protect the service for the future.

18:21  

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank Mark Ruskell for his motion and the opportunity to discuss the importance of our bus services. There is no doubt that Scotland’s diminishing bus network is in crisis, and our rural communities are paying a heavy price.

The crisis did not start becauase of the pandemic, and the failures of privatisation were not caused by Covid. In Scotland, passenger numbers have been plummeting since deregulation—they went down 43 per cent between 1987 and 2020—yet fares have risen by 159 per cent since the index started, in 1995. That dismantling of our bus network, route by route, has accelerated under this Government, with the number of passenger journeys falling by a quarter since 2007.

I know that there has been a decline across Britain, but, while the fall was 5.6 per cent in England, it was nearly three times higher, at 15.3 per cent, in Scotland between 2010 and 2018. There are many reasons for that decline, which include not only changing work patterns and growing congestion but the decisions that have been made by the Government, not least on cuts to council budgets.

The recent Green-SNP budget, which includes a real-terms cut of around £300 million for councils, will mean a real cut in more bus services in rural areas, the overwhelming majority of which rely on subsidies from the local council. That support is under threat more than ever before. That is no way to run an essential public service on which so many rely.

Buses still account for 366 million journeys a year in Scotland. They boost growth, they alleviate poverty and they connect communities. However, instead of providing an attractive alternative at a time when transport is the single biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, our deregulated bus system has been turning people away from public transport and towards cars. We see that in all our communities.

I will give just one example, although there are many across my region. The X95 bus run by Borders Buses connects rural communities between Edinburgh and Carlisle, in Midlothian, the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway. During the pandemic, its frequency was cut from hourly to every two hours, but, as we moved out of lockdown, it was not reinstated to hourly. The lack of frequency simply means that the bus is no longer an option for those who want to use it to commute to their work.

I know that there are challenges with the backlog in processing driving licences at the DVLA, and there is a lack of tests to ensure that, when bus companies decide to increase services, they have the drivers to do so. I have written to the UK Secretary of State for Transport on the issue. However, there has also been a failure of the Scottish Government to secure proper guarantees from bus firms in return for the more than £330 million of taxpayer support that was given to the sector during the pandemic. We need better conditionality to maintain services in return for that support.

We also need more fundamental change. Regulation in London and municipally owned operators such as Lothian Buses shows that the current broken system does not have to be this way. It is three years since I lodged amendments to the Transport (Scotland) Bill to lift the ban on council-run bus services, putting into practice Unite the union’s haud the bus campaign and the Co-operative Party’s people’s bus campaign, which call for a bus network that puts passengers, not profits, first. Yet, this Government has still not passed on to councils the powers that I secured, never mind given them the resources that they need to set up their own publicly and community-owned bus services. Astonishingly, the Green-SNP coalition continues to stack the cards against public ownership, with a £500 million bus partnership fund that can be spent only on deals with private bus companies, instead of using some of that funding to set up publicly run bus companies.

Scotland’s bus passengers deserve better, as do Scotland’s bus drivers. Deregulation has resulted in a race to the bottom in staff wages, yet it was our drivers and support staff who kept Scotland moving during the pandemic. They often put their own health on the line, including bus driver Willie Wallace, from Kilmarnock, who sadly died of Covid in October 2020. That should bring home to us the amazing work that our key workers do, for which we all owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

We owe our passengers a better bus network—one that meets their needs and understands that public transport is a public service that, like all public services, should be run for the benefit of the public and not for profit.

18:25  

Maggie Chapman (North East Scotland) (Green)

I thank my colleague Mark Ruskell for securing this important and timely debate. I am speaking this evening on behalf of Ariane Burgess, who, like other members, has been the victim of tech failures this evening.

I thank bus drivers who have worked throughout the pandemic, getting other key workers to their jobs and continuing to provide a low-carbon form of transport on which many of us depend.

Bus services are under threat throughout Scotland. Almost 700 routes were cancelled in the past couple of years. In Ariane’s community in Forres, people have been fighting hard to save the number 31 route, but it has still been progressively reduced, leaving certain neighbourhoods without a local connection to the public transport system. In the Banff and Buchan area of the region that I represent, which has no rail service, 15 bus services have had their financial support cut or withdrawn, which is affecting most severely the people who were already struggling.

Covid and Brexit have exacerbated such service reductions and cancellations. Just last Friday, in Inverness, Stagecoach withdrew a host of services for the second time in two months due to staff needing to self-isolate. Stagecoach had already lost many drivers to the HGV sector, which is now offering better pay in order to address its own Brexit-induced driver shortage.

Brexit and Covid are not the only forces behind service cuts. A report by the United Nations special rapporteur Philip Alston that was published in July found that privatisation and decades of deregulation have resulted in services that are “expensive, unreliable, and dysfunctional”. Bus fares have soared while passenger numbers have slumped. In Scotland, ridership has declined by 43 per cent since deregulation, in 1986. Fewer passengers means less revenue for operators, making services unviable and leading to reductions or cuts, which, in turn, push people to choose other forms of transport, continuing the circle of decline.

The problem is most acute in rural areas, where cancellations are more likely to lead to isolation. Not everyone has a car, so buses should enable everyone to get to work or the job centre, access healthcare and education, and connect with family and friends. To take that option away is unjust. Transport Scotland has recognised the key role that bus services play in helping people to realise their human rights.

Buses will also play an increasingly important role in Scotland’s journey to net zero. However, the current system is not working for passengers, taxpayers or the climate. Commercial bus networks are subsidised to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds each year, yet private operators pay out generous shareholder dividends instead of reinvesting in services and driver pay.

Instead, we should support local authorities to establish locally owned bus companies. Transport for Edinburgh and Transport for London are two examples that show that municipally owned companies or regulated franchises can provide less expensive and more reliable services. We look forward to working with our co-operation agreement partners in the Government to introduce a community bus fund to help local authorities to make use of options that are set out in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019.

To make bus travel more attractive to more people, we must make buses accessible. That is particularly pressing in rural areas, where the average time to walk or wheel to access key services is 22 minutes, as opposed to 12 minutes in urban areas. We must make buses well ventilated and Covid safe to address public concerns and enable more people to get back on their local buses. We must make it easier to take bikes and buggies on buses by requiring all new buses to carry both. We must support demand-responsive and community transport to address particular local needs to combat isolation and enable easy access of other services and facilities. We must ensure that the Government meets its commitment to make the majority of buses fossil fuel free by 2023.

We can transform our bus sector so that it delivers cost-effective services, meets the needs of communities and aligns with our climate goals. Let us get moving.

18:30  

Jim Fairlie (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)

I congratulate Mark Ruskell on securing the debate. Public transport, particularly green public transport, is a subject close to his heart. I am sure that he would have enjoyed the event that I was pleased to attend in Perth on Monday—as was the minister, Mr Dey. Supported by the Scottish Government, Stagecoach has worked in partnership with the Falkirk-based bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis Ltd and SSE, which is providing charging facilities for all-electric, zero-emission buses, the first of which Stagecoach was revealing.

Stagecoach is introducing those buses to two routes within Perth city from early in the new year. Starting with nine vehicles, it hopes to almost double the fleet to 16 by the end of next year. There is a real ambition for Perth to become the first city in the UK—[Interruption.]—I apologise; I am choking on that sentence—entirely served by zero-emission bus services. That will be a fantastic local contribution towards net zero objectives, and I hope that it will not be confined to the boundaries of the fair city as we progress.

In the interests of fairness, I stress that FirstBus is involved in an electric transport system. As a communication that I received on its behalf yesterday pointed out, its Glasgow depot is the largest electric vehicle charging hub in the UK. However, despite that positive news about bus services for the future, we are talking about an unfortunate threat to an existing bus service for many of our constituents.

I thank Jackie Dunbar for handing me water. Excuse me while I drink it.

The X53 service that is named in the motion visits three different constituencies in the Mid Scotland and Fife region, which Mr Ruskell represents. It connects Kinross, in my constituency, with Stirling via a number of communities in Keith Brown’s Clackmannanshire and Dunblane constituency. I am sure that, if Keith Brown were not a cabinet secretary, he would also speak in the debate. I know that he has been in correspondence with FirstBus and Muckhart community council on the issue.

Mr Ruskell has already outlined the history of the bus service, but it bears repeating. It is a relatively new service, which FirstBus introduced just over a year ago to replace the one that Stagecoach ended during lockdown. Although that replacement service was welcome, it already represented a reduction in service for my constituents, as the 23 service that it replaced used to run between Stirling and St Andrews. The service is now to be suspended from 10 January, with a lamentable lack of consultation with the affected communities beforehand.

I know that bus services change frequently and that other members will doubtless have, over the years, seen many changes that their constituents opposed, so they might ask why this service is different and why its suspension deserves such a chunk of parliamentary time being spent on it. The answer is that it is not just a commercial decision by FirstBus—it readily admits that. Rather, the problem is systemic. It is a consequence of the perfect storm of Covid and Brexit, which has resulted in an industry-wide shortage of drivers.

Nevertheless, I urge FirstBus to change its mind on the service. Kinross and Kinross-shire have a growing population and do not deserve to be cut off repeatedly from neighbouring towns as they have been.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

Is there not an argument that, instead of taxpayers providing free bus travel for people in urban areas—that is where most of the funding will go to provide free transport for under-21s—the money would be better spent on supporting services such as the one that Jim Fairlie is talking about and on enhancing rural bus services so that people who are under 21 could have access to a bus, not necessarily just free access? Instead of subsidising people in urban areas who have plenty of access to buses, the money would be better spent on protecting services in rural areas.

Mr Fairlie, I can give you the time back for Mr Carson’s speech.

Jim Fairlie

I would say to Mr Carson that I absolutely support the under-21s scheme because it is a part of the system that will get young users on to buses. We are going to try to change the culture of bus use in the first place.

If we remember who loses out when a bus service is removed, it is inevitably the less well-off members of our communities—the elderly and the young. Those are the people who depend on buses to take them to work or education, to shops or hospital appointments, to visit friends or just to have a day out.

We are supposed to be getting more people, not fewer, to use the buses. As the motion says, next month we will see the very welcome introduction of free bus travel for young people under 26. They will get the benefit of that only if there are buses to take them. I take the point that Mr Carson makes, but I still prefer getting people on to buses in the first place.

I hope that, when the minister sums up, we will hear something to give us hope that the Government will work with operators to find an answer to the challenges that they are facing because of driver shortages. In saying that, I completely acknowledge that the main changes that operators know will help them are ones that can be taken only by the UK Government. I know that FirstBus has been working with the Scottish Refugee Council on recruitment, as Mark Ruskell alluded, and it has called on the UK Government to change the rules around visa requirements for bus drivers by classifying them as essential workers. That would be a small and easy change that would have a positive impact on our public transport system and would address the urgent need to encourage more of the public to use the public transport system more often.

18:36  

Liz Smith (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

I add my thanks to Mark Ruskell for bringing this important issue to the chamber. I also welcome the acknowledgment from the minister at last week’s portfolio questions on transport that there is a problem here. I heard him comment about driver shortages, and they undoubtedly exist, but that is not the whole story and I think that the minister is well aware of that.

As we try desperately hard to make it easier for people to go green when they make their transport choices, I worry that the situation with the X53 bus is yet another barrier in the way. Jackie Dunbar and Jim Fairlie made interesting points about trying to change people’s behaviour, and it is true that we must. If we are going to go green, it is important that we do not have too many barriers in the way of that.

However, the context is also important. This debate comes at a time when Stagecoach has reduced the Edinburgh to Perth X56 bus service by around half. Yesterday we learned that Stagecoach is announcing a merger with National Express and the loss of its Perth headquarters. There are worries about the sustainability of some of the Stagecoach services.

It also comes at a time when ScotRail plans to lengthen the rail journey time between Edinburgh and Perth by 10 minutes because of the new diversion via Dunfermline. That journey time is already pretty lengthy when compared with other UK and European journeys of the same distance—and, indeed, when compared with the rail journey time between Edinburgh and Perth over a century ago. As we know, there have also been issues around services at Kirkcaldy, Inverkeithing and Dunblane stations. The context is not great for passengers in Mid Scotland and Fife just now, especially for those who are based in our very rural locations.

The cross-country X53 bus service is a lifeline for many rural passengers, who will feel badly cut off by the loss of the bus service—that is certainly the message coming from Mid Scotland and Fife constituents. Mark Ruskell cited many examples of that, and he is quite right about people who have essential business to do but cannot get where they need to be quite so easily. Alexander Stewart made an interesting point about Stirling Council, which is obviously also worried about the situation, and I think that we need to pay a lot of attention to it.

I do not think that this decision sits well with modern transport policy, as we are supposed to be doing all that we can to encourage more people out of their cars and on to public transport. Neither does it sit well with the demographic changes that are happening across Mid Scotland and Fife, which in some key areas is seeing substantial growth, particularly along the M90 corridor. There has been extensive house building in Milnathort and Kinross.

I recently saw a statistic that suggested that Dunfermline is expected to grow by 30 per cent between 2016 and 2026. That is an awful lot of extra people who will be working in Edinburgh, Stirling, Glasgow, Perth and so on, and I hope that many of them will want to make use of public transport.

I thank Mark Ruskell again for highlighting this issue. Like many members, I have received a lot of communications on it, and I hope that the Scottish Government will address it. I know that there are extenuating circumstances with regard to some of the causes of the situation, but this is a very real issue that we need to do something about.

18:40  

The Minister for Transport (Graeme Dey)

I thank Mark Ruskell for lodging the motion, and I thank members across the chamber who have made contributions highlighting the vital role that bus services play for people across Scotland.

The impact of Covid-19 on public transport has been unprecedented. Demand for public transport plummeted in the first national lockdown and fell steeply again when Covid restrictions were reintroduced last winter. Today, patronage is still significantly lower—by about 35 per cent—than it was before Covid, although there are significant variations across the country.

Our transport priority has been—and is still—to keep public transport running for those who need it and to maintain service levels close to pre-Covid levels while patronage recovers from the effects of the pandemic. To maintain a viable and safe bus network, we have committed up to £210 million in additional financial support for bus services since June 2020. We have also maintained concessionary reimbursement and bus service operator grant payments at pre-Covid levels, when we would normally spend over £260 million each year.

That is in addition to the money that local authorities receive through the general revenue grant to secure additional bus services that are socially necessary but that are not commercially viable in their own right. In 2019-20, £57 million was spent on supporting such local services.

Mark Ruskell

The minister has described the enormous sum of money that has been invested in the bus industry in recent years, but is there not a case for some conditionality with regard to services to ensure that there is no weighting in favour of cutting rural services, which seems to be inherent in a lot of the choices that these companies are making? Indeed, what lies at the heart of this debate is that kind of weighting, which is being felt disproportionately by rural communities simply because they do not have the numbers that stack up on a spreadsheet.

Graeme Dey

I will deal with conditionality in a moment, but the member has made a good point. Indeed, I have made that same point to bus providers, about what seems to be a disproportionate impact. They would argue that, in the space that they are in, with the shortage of drivers, their focus is on getting the maximum number of people to where they need to go. However, as the representative of a rural area, I have sympathy with the member’s argument.

The extra funding that we have provided fills the gap between the costs of running services and severely reduced ticket income due to suppressed demand, but I point out that operators who receive that additional funding are not allowed to make a profit under the terms of their public service contracts with the Scottish Government. Any profit before tax that is made on Scottish local bus operations is recovered from participating operators.

The largest bus operators are now running, on average, 85 per cent of their pre-Covid mileage. In some places, operators are running below 100 per cent of pre-Covid mileage due to a lack of drivers because of sickness, self-isolation or national driver shortages. When I talked to a major operator earlier this week, I was struck by its concerns. As is happening across society, it might plan services the evening before, on the basis of expected capacity, but—lo and behold!—it discovers, first thing in the morning, that more drivers are off and much reshuffling has to be done. It is, of course, difficult to communicate those service changes to service users, but I think that the operators need to get better at doing so.

With current driver shortages, bus operators have to make difficult decisions on where best to deploy capacity to meet demand and to maintain basic connectivity, but they have to do so in consultation with local transport authorities. It is right that decisions about local bus service provision be determined locally and after consultation. That is why it is a condition of our funding that bus operators are required to consult and co-operate with local transport authorities when planning services. Operators must respond positively and quickly to reasonable requests from local transport authorities to amend provision and keep services under review.

Colin Smyth

The minister will know that the overwhelming majority of bus services in rural areas are subsidised though council support for bus companies. What does he think the local council budget cut of about £300 million will do? The money given to councils is not ring fenced. Does he think that the cut will lead to even more services being reduced?

Minister, I will give you time back for that and for the earlier intervention.

Graeme Dey

Thank you.

It is regrettable that every contribution from Colin Smyth in the chamber comes down to being anti-Scottish National Party, anti-Scottish Government or councils versus Government. I noted earlier that £57 million is given to local authorities to support additional services. However, I agree with Colin Smyth that the current model does not work and that we need to change it.

I understand that the relevant local transport authorities are in discussion about the planned suspension of the X53 service and that the issue is due to driver shortages. Therefore, I welcome the on-going work on potential solutions to maintain the service. To clarify, as Alexander Stewart will recognise, the X53 service was put in place during the first national lockdown, after Stagecoach in Fife cancelled its 23 service between St Andrews and Stirling due to low demand. First Scotland East stepped in to run the X53 as a partial replacement for the route. It operates on a commercial basis, but I understand that the problem is driver shortage. I welcome the fact that the relevant LTAs are currently exploring alternatives to maintain the service either in full or in part. I know that that is not entirely ideal, but at least the effort is being made to see whether there is an alternative solution while long-term arrangements to maintain connectivity in the area are considered. I also note that, where appropriate and practicable, operators must also plan services in consultation with local health boards, having regard to serving key workers and supporting travel to healthcare settings, including for vaccinations.

Right now, we are seeing labour and skills shortages across the economy and public services. The staffing pressures that have been placed on the bus industry by the pandemic have added to the Brexit problems, and there is no doubt that they are adversely and significantly affecting bus service delivery.

Scottish Government officials are working closely with the sector to facilitate solutions through, for example, the labour and skills shortages action plan and connecting local employability partnerships with bus operators. My officials are in contact with the Department for Transport to address issues around delayed licence applications and driver testing. I have also raised those issues directly with UK Government counterparts.

As we have heard, and as I said to Colin Smyth, the current system is not working in the best interests of our communities. Through the implementation of part 3 of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, we have the opportunity to make progress in that regard. The development of the secondary legislation was paused out of necessity, due to the pandemic. The consultation closed in October, and the analysis should be completed by the end of the year, following which we will move to developing and introducing the secondary legislation.

Local transport authorities asked for flexible options so that they can put in place what works in their areas. The 2019 act provides that range of options with new partnership and franchising models, as well as a power for more local transport authorities to run bus services, supported by the community bus fund.

I look forward to seeing the delivery of bus services that better meet the needs of our communities, wherever they are.

Thank you, minister. That concludes the debate.

Meeting closed at 18:48.