Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Bus Services, Mental Health Crisis, Complaint, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Lyme Disease


Bus Services

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-08954, in the name of Alex Rowley, on access to bus services. I invite members who wish to take part to press their request-to-speak button now or as soon as possible.


Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

On the face of it, my motion for debate is about bus services, route cancellations, inflation-busting fare increases, a lack of investment and a failure of leadership, but, at its heart, my motion is about people who rely on the public transport system to get them to where they need to go. It is about people who get stranded on routes that get cancelled in the interests of shareholders. It is about people being failed by flawed approaches to bus services that hand public money and control to private interests.

In writing the motion, my intention was to instigate a balanced debate that I hoped members across the chamber could get behind, regardless of their party affiliation. That is why I am so disappointed by the Government amendment. It serves as an example of the blinkered approach that has led to the sorry state of bus services across the country.

Let us have a look at the motion and what the Government has removed in its amendment, which will get passed with the Greens’ support. Let us have a discussion about who is interested in the environment and who is interested in getting people out of cars and on to buses, because it is certainly not the Green Party.

My motion notes the

“recent bus fare rises across the country that are hitting during a cost of living crisis”.

The fact that the Government wants that removed suggests that it is in denial. Does it acknowledge that there have been major increases in bus fares across the country, and does it accept that, for many people who are on low incomes, that is a barrier to using buses?

The motion further notes that those fare rises

“come on the back of route cancellations across much of Scotland that are isolating communities.”

Is the Government seriously saying that there have not been route cancellations in every community across Scotland? I am sure that there has been bus cancellation after bus cancellation in the communities of Scottish National Party and Green Party members, just as there has been in our communities. That puts people off using buses.

Indeed, last week in West Lothian, two young people explained how they would both have to spend £40 on a Sunday to get a taxi, because of the bus route cancellations that have taken place. Young people told us that their first bus in the morning had been taken off, so they had to take taxis at £20 because, otherwise, they could not get to their work. Is the Government denying that routes have been cut? It certainly seems to be doing so. Let us look at the SNP amendment, which inserts the words

“supports the vision outlined in the policy prospectus, Equality, Opportunity, Community, for a public transport system that is more accessible”.

The system is not more accessible, and the people who are suffering the most are the poorest.

The amendment goes on to talk about the under-22s and free travel for the over-60s but, in the middle, there is a group of people who are generally on much lower incomes, which is why they are not in their cars, and those people are being denied access to buses because of the costs. You really could not make it up—the Government is in denial. It is not just that the SNP Government is in denial but that it has no idea what to do to build a transport system that will deliver for all the people of Scotland.

At the weekend, one of its members said that the SNP is

“in office but not in power”.

I would go further and say that it has no vision and is a clueless Government that is high on rhetoric, with no idea how to meet the big challenges that Scotland faces at this time. Record numbers of buses have been axed during its time in office, and the number of routes being axed is on the rise, so it is clear that the SNP’s broken system is failing thousands of public transport users in Scotland, and it has no plan to fix it. Indeed, I repeat that the Government does not have a clue about how to begin to fix the problems that we have in Scotland.

Scottish Labour will launch the biggest reform of buses in a generation, end the SNP’s broken system and hand power and control of routes, fares and services back to local communities and people who depend on those services. That is the direction of travel in which we need to go—

Will Alex Rowley give way?

The member is just winding up.

Mr Rowley, you need to conclude at six minutes. You can take the intervention, but you will then need to conclude.

Alex Rowley

I apologise to the Green member for not being able to take the intervention, but perhaps he and others can start to examine their consciences and ask themselves why they deny that people are being excluded from buses because it is too expensive to use the buses. Why do they deny that many people are being excluded from buses because no buses are running in their area? What is the point of a free bus pass if there are no buses to get on? The Greens and the SNP Government have no vision, no clue and, time and again, will fail the people of Scotland on transport.

I move,

That the Parliament believes that reliable, accessible and affordable public transport is a key lifeline service in Scotland; believes that public investment in passenger transport should deliver value for money, environmental and social benefits; notes the recent bus fare rises across the country that are hitting during a cost of living crisis; further notes that these come on the back of route cancellations across much of Scotland that are isolating communities; believes that local authorities must be fully supported, empowered and resourced in their role regarding local public transport, and calls on the Scottish Government to support the introduction of a cap on bus fares across Scotland and set out what action it will take to stop the cuts to bus services on routes across Scotland.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

As I am sure that members will already have gathered, there is no time in hand, so speeches will have to stick to the time limit. I invite the minister to speak to and move amendment S6M-08954.3 for up to five minutes.


The Minister for Transport (Kevin Stewart)

I welcome the debate on the motion. Mr Rowley said that he wanted a consensual debate, but his opening remarks did not sound consensual at all.

However, I agree with Mr Rowley that reliable, accessible and affordable public transport is a lifeline service for many people across Scotland, and that is the vision in the new “Equality, opportunity, community: New leadership—A fresh start” policy prospectus that the First Minister set out last month. Bus services play a vital role in supporting the delivery of the three missions that are set out in the prospectus.

The Scottish Government took significant action to ensure that bus services were protected during the pandemic, including through the provision of £223 million between June 2020 and March 2022. We continued the network support grant plus until March 2023 to freeze fares and to help people with the cost of travel over the winter. Our support continues in 2023-24 with a broad package of investment in bus services—£421.8 million has been allocated, including through the network support grant and concessionary schemes. I was also pleased to launch the second phase of our co-funded marketing campaign with the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK and bus operators in Galashiels last week, to encourage people to choose the bus.

Our support for bus services takes a number of different forms. In particular, our national free bus travel schemes for young people and for older and disabled people are the most generous in the United Kingdom. The schemes cover a larger percentage of the population than anywhere else in the UK, with up to 2.6 million people eligible for free bus travel in Scotland. That is encouraging more people to choose the bus, and it is helping us to meet our net zero targets by encouraging a shift away from cars. It is a transformational policy, and we now have more than two thirds of young people enjoying free bus travel, representing a new cardholder every minute since the scheme launched in January 2022. Therefore, although I recognise members’ arguments in relation to capping fares, I hope that, in turn, they will acknowledge just how widespread and significant our free fares support has become.

Will the minister give way?

Will the minister give way?

I will give way to Liam Kerr, because he asked first.

Does the minister know exactly where the concentrations of people taking up the under-22s bus scheme are located?

Kevin Stewart

I will provide members with the details of where uptake has occurred. Off the top of my head, I do not have the numbers for each local authority area, but we will provide that information later, as I did to Ms Dowey in response to a question that she asked earlier this week.

The pandemic was not only a period of huge challenge for public transport but its impact continues to be felt in patterns of demand. Therefore, although the Scottish Government continues to provide significant financial support for bus services, that support needs to evolve to ensure that it remains fit for purpose and is sustainable in the long term. I have committed to a review of bus subsidy this year to ensure that funding can best contribute to meeting the needs of local communities.

We are progressing with the fair fares review, which will develop and assess options to make our public transport system more accessible, available and affordable, with the costs of transport more fairly shared across Government, business and society.

Will the minister give way?

Kevin Stewart

I have a lot to get through, so I will not take the intervention.

Improving bus journey times and reliability will contribute to high-quality bus services and shorter journey times, encouraging motorists out of their cars and on to buses. That is why we are investing in bus priority infrastructure through our bus partnership fund. Awards totalling £26 million in bus priority funding have already been made to 11 partnerships, covering 28 local authorities.

It is not just how buses run that is changing with the powers that local authorities now have under the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 and with further secondary legislation to enable bus franchising and partnership working that is being introduced later this year. It is also about what is changing in relation to the buses themselves.

Removing carbon emissions from our transport sector is critical to meeting Scotland’s ambitious climate targets. Since December 2020, we have directly supported the acquisition of 548 new zero-emission buses, and we are supporting charging infrastructure across Scotland. This week, I launched phase 2 of the Scottish zero-emission bus challenge, which will transform the market to deliver a zero-emission future for buses.

You need to conclude, minister.

Kevin Stewart

Thank you, Presiding Officer—I will.

I recognise just how important a modern, affordable and accessible bus system is for the whole of Scotland. I am impressed by the appetite shown by everyone involved in bus services to innovate and respond to changing needs—

You do need to conclude, minister.

Kevin Stewart

In which case, Presiding Officer, I move amendment S6M-08954.3, to leave out from “notes the recent” to end and insert:

“supports the vision outlined in the policy prospectus, Equality, Opportunity, Community, for a public transport system that is more accessible, available and affordable; notes the success of the concessionary bus travel schemes, which now offer free bus travel to 2.6 million people, with over two thirds of young people under 22 now holding the National Entitlement Card, making over 62 million journeys to date; agrees that bus services should serve the needs of local communities; notes the introduction of provisions under the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, which will empower local authorities with the flexible tools that they need to respond to their own transport challenges, coupled with funding that allows local authorities to develop new ways of supporting bus development; recognises the key role of bus services in decarbonising transport and therefore welcomes the recent second tranche of zero emissions bus funding, and commends all of the staff involved in sustaining bus services over the last three years.”

I ask members who intend to speak in the debate who have not already done so to press their request-to-speak button.


Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I thank the Labour Party for securing the debate. I am a fan of buses, and I have been ever since my dad worked for a bus company in the 1970s. I would be even more of a fan if I had a decent bus service where I live that I could use. However, like many people, I do not. Out of necessity, I tend to take the car, walk or cycle to most places. I do not want it to be that way. Too many people live in public transport deserts or places such as Shotts where the bus service is patchy and, on a Sunday, virtually non-existent.

Will the member give way?

Graham Simpson


Before the pandemic, 373 million journeys a year were made by bus in Scotland, which was the largest number of journeys for any form of public transport. Journey figures have rebounded, but not to pre-pandemic levels. Buses can hold the key if the Government is serious about hitting its target to reduce the number of car miles by 20 per cent by 2030. However, it has presented no ideas on how to achieve that.

Buses need to be there for people, and they need to offer something better than the car. The Scottish Government’s decision to cut the network support grant plus in March was baffling. That did not happen anywhere else in Britain. Operator warnings that that could lead to a rise in fares and a reduction in services fell on deaf ears. Last year’s savage cuts to local government spending were met with similar disdain, with Councillor Gail Macgregor of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities warning in January that councils would struggle to fund services.

However, it is not just on funding that the SNP is failing. The Government’s goal to remove the majority of the country’s diesel bus fleet in favour of zero-emission models by the end of 2023 lies in tatters. Transform Scotland estimates that just 16 per cent will be converted by that time.

Kevin Stewart

We are now at a stage at which 15 per cent of our bus fleet is using decarbonised buses, which is much higher than south of the border, where Mr Simpson’s party is in power. Within the next three years, it is my understanding that it is hoped that the fleet will reach a further 12 per cent. We are going further and faster than the Tories south of the border.

Graham Simpson

The minister mentioned a figure of 15 per cent, yet Transform Scotland said that it was 16 per cent—that is nowhere near the target.

The £500 million bus partnership fund, which launched in 2019 to deliver bus priority measures on our roads, has paid out just £25 million since that time. It is little wonder that the Parliament’s Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee recommended that the Government reviews the scheme to see why there has been such poor take-up. Of course, fares can play a big part in getting people on to public transport. We await the introduction of a cross-modal travel card of the type that was given to delegates at the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26. We can only look south with envy at the £2 fare cap, which has just been extended until October, when it will go up for a year to £2.50. With a bit of promotion, that will be a massive success.

Our failing bus network is having a detrimental impact on people’s everyday lives. The Scottish Government cannot wait about any longer. If we want to get people on to buses, we need comprehensive routes that are easy to use, and fares need to be simple and cheap. I have heard nothing of that from the minister.

I move amendment S6M-08954.2, to insert at end:

“;further calls on the Scottish Government to set out in detail how it plans to achieve its 20% car kilometre reduction target by 2030, and calls on the Scottish Government to publish its Fair Fares Review before summer recess 2023.”


Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

Had my amendment been chosen, it would have called on the Scottish Government to extend the under-22s free bus entitlement to ferries, which in many island communities are used in the same way as bus services. That would help with the aim of the policy to encourage more people to use public transport, which would create a habit for the future.

In order to reach our ambitious net zero targets, buses will need to play a significant role. Scrapping our diesel fleets is a priority. Having more people on buses will help us to lower emissions, reduce traffic and lower the need for road building.

One double-decker bus can take seventy-five cars off our roads, but bus services are failing communities across Scotland. Transport Scotland’s household survey on transport and travel in Scotland in 2021—which was, admittedly, a difficult year for public transport figures—found that although 42 per cent of adults who responded used a bus at least once a month in large urban areas, only 12 per cent did so in remote rural areas. The same survey showed that those in our remote rural, accessible rural and small remote towns were among the most likely to have access to a car.

The Age Scotland briefing highlights that two thirds of over-60s in remote and rural areas either do not have a bus pass or do not use it, while almost 60 percent of single-pensioner households do not have access to a car. Buses need to be as convenient as cars if we are to be successful in increasing their usage. However, cars in rural and island locations are often a necessity because of geography and sparse populations.

Scottish Liberal Democrats have been calling for a model similar to that of Transport for London, to reregulate buses using local transport boards, which would choose the routes and timings. Bus companies can bid for those, allowing communities to decide where buses can go.

Changes by a previous transport minister, which gave powers back to local authorities to run their own bus services were a move in the right direction, but a lack of funding for local authorities inhibits that option’s full potential.

True reform needs appropriate funding to make it happen. When it is time to review services, so much can have changed in the interim years of a contract that once-popular routes might have declined, while the need for a new route might not have been detected because potential users have found other means to travel. Confidence in the service subsequently goes down and the spiral continues.

As the motion states, bus ticket price rises in the middle of a cost of living crisis have hit commuters hard, and route cancellations make it difficult for many shift workers, who find themselves hard pressed to find bus services that tie in with their work patterns. We need to look at how we can improve the provision of services outside of rush hours without running empty services.

With a general move to more people working from home, commuter services are not the only infrastructure for us to consider. In rural and island areas, superfast broadband roll-out is still not complete, despite the SNP commitment to do that by 2021, while mobile connectivity remains patchy. Digital exclusion prevents people from accessing everyday services, including travel apps, or from finding bus information.

Finally, national infrastructure, such as tunnels for island communities, would help to reduce some of the greatest contributors to carbon emissions in the isles—ferry journeys.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to the open debate. I remind members that we are tight for time. The words “In conclusion” should be uttered before the four-minute mark, not on the four-minute mark. With that, I call Monica Lennon. You have up to four minutes, Ms Lennon.


Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I am pleased to speak in support of the Scottish Labour motion. I thank my colleague Alex Rowley for bringing his passion to the chamber today.

Public transport and buses are subjects close to all our hearts, but Alex Rowley is absolutely right—this debate is first and foremost about people. It is about the future of our communities and young people, and the very future of our planet.

Buses are essential lifelines for our communities. They enable younger and older people the freedom to travel around their communities and beyond. They should be an affordable and reliable alternative to cars, and they should be run in the interests of people and not private shareholders.

Buses are also an essential part of Scotland’s journey to net zero. The Scottish Government has rightly recognised the importance of buses in its national transport strategy and the programme for Government, where it pledged to support Scotland’s bus networks. Unfortunately, despite the importance of buses to net zero and those pledges from ministers, many of our communities face bus deserts, a point made by Graham Simpson—areas where few or no reliable regular bus services are available.

Scottish Labour supports the expansion of the national travel concessionary scheme that we introduced when in government, but the point has been made that what use is the free bus pass if no bus turns up at the bus stop? People are frustrated. The minister wants us all to be very calm today, but the reality is that we cannot solve a problem if we do not admit it in the first place. Therefore, I think it unfortunate that the Government wants to delete the fair and factual points that Labour makes in its motion.

Where bus services continue to exist, many people simply cannot afford to use them. We know that the people who rely on buses are predominantly those on lower incomes who cannot afford to buy a car. Around one third of people are without access to a car.

Beatrice Wishart mentioned some of the challenges that our remote and rural areas face.

Colleagues have heard me talk about the withdrawal of the X1 express bus service from Hamilton to Glasgow many times before. Back in July 2020, First Bus withdrew that lifeline service for people in Hamilton, which had enabled residents to get into the town centre and beyond it to the city centre. People relied on that route for work, as well as to access education, social and leisure opportunities and healthcare, including attending hospital appointments in Glasgow.

Since that time, we have come out of lockdown and people want to get out again. People have told me that a return journey from one end of Hamilton to the other just to see a doctor costs them £15. That is completely unaffordable.

I have raised the issue many times. The minister is new to his post, and I hope that we will meet soon, along with local people from Hamilton, to find solutions.

Sticking with the X1 bus, I think that I have told the minister this before, but I will say again that more than 100 people turned up at a bus stop recently to get a photo taken, to send a message that they want their bus back. That is how serious a matter this is. However, people not getting any answers.

The cancellation of the X1 bus and the campaign that the community is leading highlight how much people care about the services. Monday is the start of #lovemybus week. The people of Hamilton loved their X1 bus; communities around Scotland love their buses, too. It is time that the Scottish Government shows that it also loves buses and that it will provide not just the vision but the investment that we need for our people and the planet.


Fiona Hyslop (Linlithgow) (SNP)

Buses connect us to our communities and to each other, and they give us freedom and choice. A good bus network should give us an environmentally friendly, accessible and cheaper alternative to cars.

My constituency in West Lothian is a semi-rural area, with many towns and villages with a higher-than-average reliance on cars. Bus services in West Lothian are woefully unreliable currently and have been for some time. Changes to commercial bus operators’ services have meant that many services no longer run, with some villages effectively cut off at certain times and on a Sunday.

Of course, commercial operators’ decisions to cancel or withdraw services are not the original source of current bus service provision issues. When I have raised concerns with our two current major bus operators—McGill’s and Lothian Buses—they cite driver shortages as one of the major reasons for declining service provision.

We know that driver shortages are a direct result of the impact of Brexit, which the people of Scotland did not vote for, and that the UK Government’s current immigration system further limits potential recruitment of European Union drivers. I suspect that I do not need to reiterate to members the extreme and continuing adverse economic impact of Brexit on Scotland’s economy. At the very least, the UK Government must agree to put bus drivers on the shortage occupation list.

The Scottish Government, using its devolved powers, has provided local authorities with the powers to introduce improvements to bus services in their local areas via section 34 of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019. More than £500 million, via the bus partnership fund, will be distributed through 14 bus partnerships across Scotland, one of which is West Lothian bus alliance in my constituency. Initial funding of £25.8 million was allocated to the partnerships so that they could undertake appraisal work.

A pressing issue remains: we have yet to find out what action the local authority will take with those new powers. West Lothian Council is already working on a long-term review of public transport options for subsidised support, which it can then apply to the £500 million bus partnership fund to support. However, in the meantime, buses are being cancelled.

My constituents cannot get to their work or to hospital. We need bus services support in the interim before people lose their jobs or just revert back to car usage. Under pressure from the public and the SNP opposition, the Labour-led, Tory-supported West Lothian Council finally agreed to emergency support for one of the cancelled routes recently.

West Lothian may be semi-rural, but it is a major route for commuting by car along the M8 and M9 corridors to both Glasgow and Edinburgh. As far more people live in West Lothian than in the city of Dundee, if Scotland is to reach net zero, we need viable alternatives to car use.

Park-and-bus-ride opportunities on the M8 near the Heartlands junction and at the new Winchburgh junction on the M9 are needed, but transport co-ordination is required for that, and I am told that to date that has been singularly absent, with little movement towards it occurring. Having reliable, circular bus links to the two railway lines that go through West Lothian would also be a sensible and realisable goal in support of achieving sustainable travel.

We need to encourage people back on to buses and out of their cars post Covid, but people cannot use public transport if their area is not served. Despite the takeover of the previously poor First Bus service by McGill’s, and the determination of McGill’s to drive up standards of reliability and confidence, the current state of limbo while it gets there is not helping anyone.

The lack of reliable bus services is having a huge impact on my constituents. People are worried about losing their jobs. They are missing health appointments, losing access to basic amenities and endlessly waiting for buses that simply do not turn up. Buses can bring freedom, choice and connection—we cannot afford to miss the bus on this one.


Maurice Golden (North East Scotland) (Con)

I will focus my comments on local bus services—the sort of services that act as lifelines for our communities by providing the most vulnerable people with everyday access to shopping, services and socialising.

Despite the importance of such bus routes, they can be economically challenging to operate. That is when local authorities step in by providing subsidies to ensure that the routes are accessible to people who have few, if any, other transport options. Therefore, it is of great concern that we see local authorities losing their ability to offer that support. With their budgets having been hollowed out by years of cuts from the Scottish Government, local authorities are inevitably making cuts of their own in order to balance their books. Sadly, local bus services are among those cuts.

I have seen that in my community, where the SNP-led Dundee City Council has voted to end support for five local bus routes. In an effort to plug an £18 million hole in the council budget, more than £122,000 worth of support is being cut from the 51, 202, 204, 206 and 236 services. Those bus routes connect communities across the city—the Ferry, the west end, Lochee, Kirkton, Lawside and more besides. Their loss will be felt in each of those communities, and will be felt especially by the many elderly passengers who rely on them. As my constituents would expect of me, I have taken the matter up with the leader of the council. Along with local councillor Derek Scott, I will continue to push for those services to be reinstated.

This is not just a problem for Dundee, though. The environment and economy spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, Councillor Gail Macgregor, wrote to the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee warning of the risk. She said:

“there is concern that incredibly stretched levels of funding in FY23/24 will prevent Councils from providing the bus services they are currently providing, either directly or by subsidising”.

Given that, according to one survey, more than one in five Scots uses a bus weekly, the loss of any service is a serious matter—yet that is what will continue to happen if the Scottish Government keeps gutting council budgets. Its doing so also completely undermines the decision to give councils the ability to run their own bus services. What good is giving councils that power if they have no money to enable them to use it? That is another example of the SNP-Green Government talking a good game but failing to deliver results.

The target to convert the majority of Scotland’s bus fleet to zero-emission vehicles by 2023 is another promise that looks set for failure, with a Transform Scotland report estimating that just 16 per cent of the fleet will have been converted by the deadline.

We have a Scottish Government that is off target, is not investing in our communities and has seen passenger numbers decline by 40 per cent over the past few years. That all adds up to a Government that does not know how to deliver high-quality public transport. I invite the Government to listen to my constituents. They do not want gimmicks from this Government; they want their local bus services back.


Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

Monica Lennon mentioned that next week is #lovemybus week. I have to say that the event will seem to be rather ironic for many of my constituents, who will be feeling unrequited love after their local buses have been removed. Many of my constituents love taking the bus, but private bus companies do not appear to love them back.

Thousands of my constituents in Renfrewshire are angry, frustrated and in despair after McGill’s cut a huge 13 per cent of services at the start of this month. The company claims that the primary reason for that is the Government’s withdrawal of Covid recovery support funding. Those are the latest cuts in the bus market, which has been decimated over the past 16 years. For example, in 2007, under the then Labour Government, there were 5,400 buses in operation, but the figure had plummeted to 3,700 in 2022. As Alex Rowley rightly said, young people and older people alike are now asking what the point is of having a free bus pass if there is no bus to get on.

In Renfrewshire, we are seeing the dilution of some services and the withdrawal of other services altogether. In Kilbarchan, buses have been cut from one every 20 minutes to one an hour. In Erskine, young people are without the 22 service to get them to college in Paisley. In Gallowhill and Whitehaugh, disabled residents have lost the service from inside their scheme. In Neilston and Barrhead, cuts are affecting national health service workers who are trying to make it to shifts at the Royal Alexandra hospital. In Foxbar, a constituent of mine who is a dialysis patient is having to take a daily taxi journey because of early morning bus cuts.

Working mothers in Johnstone also face early morning bus cuts, and now find it impossible to get to work on time after dropping the kids at school. Service cuts are affecting Spateston, Linwood, Ferguslie, Hawkhead, Kirklandneuk, Bishopton and more. The list goes on and on.

Frankly, people have had enough. The bus cuts are unacceptable to them, so they should be unacceptable to the Scottish Government, too. People do not want warm words; they want action. They want us to reverse the cuts and urgently deliver a plan to improve our bus services.

Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, which has few resources, has stepped in to support some services. That is welcome, but temporary and very limited stopgap measures simply will not cut it. Therefore, it is frankly astonishing that the Scottish Government has done nothing—precisely nothing—to stop bus services in Renfrewshire being cut.

It is also extremely disappointing that the new Minister for Transport denies the problem in his amendment and has so far ignored my invitation to visit Renfrewshire to hear directly from passengers who have been affected. People in my area are rightly asking, “What is this Government here for?” For all the talk from the minister today, not a single bus service that was cut at the start of this month in Renfrewshire has been, or is set to be, reinstated.

The Scottish Government is not a bystander in this, so it should stop acting like one and govern, because the situation is not inevitable. We can and should do things differently, and there are solutions that should be implemented. First, it is long past time that instead of happily handing over to private bus companies hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in subsidies every year, it should impose stricter conditions on support.

Will the member give way?

Neil Bibby

I do not have time, I am afraid.

Secondly, as Alex Rowley rightly said, we need a cap on bus fares. Labour mayors across England have capped single fares at £2.00; meanwhile, my constituents pay among the highest bus fares anywhere in the United Kingdom, at £2.85 for a 2-mile journey. Finally, we need to ensure that there is fundamental reform of the broken bus market. Local buses should be under local control.

Thank you, Mr Bibby. We have to move on.

The Scottish Government should ensure that local transport authorities are able to bring buses under public control.


Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

Improved bus connectivity is critical to linking communities, to travelling cheaply and safely and to our commitments to tackling emissions. Bus connectivity can ensure that families and friends of all ages who live in different areas across Scotland have a reliable way of keeping in contact with one another, which is something that we all missed so dearly during the pandemic.

The Scottish Government’s plan for a 20 per cent reduction in car kilometres by 2030 is dependent on improving and increasing the reliability of public transport options including buses and trains, and the national transport strategy has specifically cited improved bus routes as a way to reach net zero.

I am pleased to hear that the Scottish Government is committed to making sustainable travel modes more attractive. That commitment is demonstrated through the 2023-24 budget, in which the Government allocated a record £425.7 million to support bus services and concessionary travel across Scotland.

Given that I represent a constituency in the central belt, people might think that there is a wealth of bus routes across my constituency, but that is not necessarily the case. Similar to the situation in Hamilton, Coatbridge in my constituency lost, in 2019, the only bus route that connected the town with the city of Glasgow. The loss of the route left many people in my constituency feeling isolated, disconnected and separated from the surrounding urban areas. My colleague Neil Gray—who represents the neighbouring Airdrie and Shotts constituency—and I campaigned heavily with the community for the return of a bus connection to our largest city. I am happy to say that, in March this year came the announcement of the Citylink 902 service, which, as well as finally connecting Coatbridge to Glasgow again, takes people to Edinburgh airport for the first time. It was great to meet the operations director to hear more about that excellent service, which I encourage my constituents to continue to use.

I have also been working collaboratively with First Bus, which I have found to be open to new ideas. I am hopeful that another service will be trialled this summer to connect specific areas of Coatbridge to Glasgow city centre.

There is no doubt: the services that I have mentioned, following the work that I and others have done with communities to make them possible, would not have made it off the ground had the free bus pass for young people not been introduced.

Will the member take an intervention?

Fulton MacGregor

I do not have enough time. I am sorry.

Although the developments are welcome, areas along the northern corridor in my constituency still feel disconnected, so I am engaging with bus companies to try to find a solution to the more complex issue of connecting the small villages that make up the northern corridor.

As other members have said, Scotland’s concessionary travel schemes have been trailblazing in encouraging both young and old to travel by bus. However, until very recently residents in my constituency would have found very little use for them, so I hope that that will change across my whole constituency.

Relevant stakeholders have told me that a backlog of staffing issues, including hiring and training of new drivers, has resulted in numerous delays and route cancellations. Fiona Hyslop made a good point about Brexit. Now that the backlog is drawing to a close, it is critical that routes that had been cancelled be revived and that new routes be established, where necessary.

As I said, residents across the northern corridor in my constituency feel that current bus services are inadequate. The community there is ever growing, so I take this opportunity to urge bus companies to examine the viability of increasing services in the area. I would be very grateful if the minister could give consideration to that area of the country, and would be happy to speak to him about the issues.

I am confident that the Scottish Government recognises the importance of increased bus connectivity and access to bus services. In my constituency, I have seen the sense of isolation that comes when a route is discontinued, but I have also seen the benefits and delight when a defunct route is reintroduced. Although increased funding and new route announcements are welcome news, we must keep up the momentum and continue to invest in our public transport services for the good of our communities, our economy and our environment.


Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Bus services are essential public services that must be run in the public interest. However, the reality is that we have been stuck in a cycle of decline in bus services, which started with Tory deregulation in the 1980s. It is now time to break that cycle, which means reflecting not only on how bad things have got but on the solutions. It is the solutions that are represented in the Government’s amendment.

It is absolutely clear that, following the widening of concessionary travel to under-22s, a new generation of young people are choosing to take the bus. More than two thirds of young people under 22 now hold a national entitlement card, with more than 62 million journeys having been made to date. The card is improving access to education, work and social opportunities, and is saving money for hundreds of thousands of young people and their families during the cost of living crisis. Holding the card has built the confidence and independence of teenagers. It has helped to address transport poverty across Scotland, it has enabled young people who are in desperate need to access food banks and it has helped many young people to access a job for the first time.

The evaluation of the scheme and the fair fares review should point to where we could go next with concessionary travel. I see a pressing need to extend the scheme to people in the asylum system who are, thanks to Tory cruelty, forced to live on £45 a week. I also see the case for an extension to young folk on islands who use ferries as they would buses.

I agree with Monica Lennon that one can get on a bus only if the service actually exists and is reliable. Too often, private operators are removing or scaling back services despite the huge amounts of funding from concessionary fares and subsidies from the Scottish Government, so I was pleased that the previous transport minister announced a

“full review of all funding streams from the Scottish Government to bus operators in Scotland”.

I believe that that review will bring the kind of conditionality for which Neil Bibby was calling.

Will the member give way?

Mark Ruskell

I am sorry. I do not have time.

It is time to hold private bus companies to account on fares and service cancellations, and for the Government to work more with the traffic commissioner on enforcement. Use of the bus open data system, for example, would help both passengers and the commissioner to sanction the poor delivery that we see from many companies.

The Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 delivered new bus powers for councils. It gave them the ability to serve the needs of local communities by setting up municipally owned bus operators. Those powers have the potential to revolutionise services, so it is disappointing that Alex Rowley said absolutely nothing in his initial comments about municipal ownership of bus companies. He might need to take a leaf out of Andy Burnham’s book; he has focused on the solution, which is public control of a public service.

That is what we need from Labour—solutions. We need Labour to come to the chamber and agree on areas such as municipalisation, and to work with the new minister and councils to deliver it. Let us focus on the solutions and not just on how bad things have gotten—[Interruption.] I want to get on to the solutions, Mr Rowley.

The community bus fund will provide critical start-up funding for interested local authorities to explore the new powers around franchising and municipalisation. We should remember, too, that local authorities have powers on road-user charging and workplace parking levies which could help to build the required funds to sustain municipalised or franchised bus services. Let us get investment into publicly owned and publicly controlled bus companies. I hope that councils are showing the political leadership to use those powers.

We have barely scratched the surface this afternoon on the reforms that are needed to improve our bus services, but I look forward to more constructive opportunities to debate and develop the vision and find the solutions that we need.


Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

The bus industry is changing. The past few years have seen major changes in areas from passenger numbers to journey types and frequency of services. However, nowhere is the change greater than in the buses themselves.

Electric buses are now being introduced—even if that is at a pace that suggests that the Scottish Government’s target to remove the majority of diesel buses by the end of the year will be another example of its being big on talk and short on action. I listened to the minister’s reply to an intervention by my colleague. It seems that he is content to mask the failure of not achieving the target by pointing elsewhere. I suggest to the minister that he should not set targets that he has no hope of reaching.

I recently met representatives of Stagecoach West Scotland and saw some of the newest electric buses that have been used to run the first fully electric semi-rural service in Scotland through the Irvine valley. Although those electric buses are a significant step forward, they still have their limitations. Despite considerable advances in battery technology, which are increasing range and optimising lifespan, charging throughout the day remains vital. That requires investment in chargers at bus stations and depots and potentially elsewhere on the route to keep the battery topped up.

All of that infrastructure, together with the buses, comes at a substantial cost. An electric bus can be at least twice as expensive as its diesel equivalent and, although the costs can be offset over the lifetime of the vehicle, the up-front cost is substantial. Similarly, the charging infrastructure comes with a large up-front cost, particularly if it needs to be installed in more rural areas or areas that need wider grid upgrades to accommodate it.

Members will by now be familiar with my view that hydrogen could be the missing piece in the puzzle to achieve net zero. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles might be the key to unlocking longer-range zero-emission buses. Although some early trials with that technology have had mixed results, I urge the Scottish Government to continue to support research into that emerging technology.

Of course, the biggest challenge for bus providers remains how to meet the costs of running those services. The significant losses during the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated existing financial pressures to a degree that could never have been predicted. In the chamber, we routinely call for bus companies to continue to run services on routes that could never credibly be profitable. Those services, which are often lifelines for smaller rural communities, should be protected, even if there is a cost to Government.

I grant that there are many demands on the Government’s finances—ferry overspends, ministers for independence, cleaning up whatever mess the Scottish Greens have made of a policy this week—but there is a strong argument that improved targeted financial support for bus services would have significant benefits, particularly in rural areas, such as my South Scotland region.

Will the member give way?

Brian Whittle

I would love to, but I do not have time.

It is important to stress just how important a role Scotland’s bus networks have to play in reaching our net zero targets.

One of the first things that any of us learned as a child is that the wheels on the bus go round and round all day long. If that is to remain the case, we must ensure that bus providers are given the right long-term financial support to give them the confidence to invest in new technologies, keep fares low and protect lifeline routes that offer the only real public transport option for so many people in rural areas.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you for that trip down memory lane, Mr Whittle.

I call Keith Brown, who is the final speaker in the open debate. After he has spoken, we will move to the closing speeches. All those who have participated in the debate will need to be in the chamber.


Keith Brown (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)

I am pleased to be able to participate in this debate, although it has been quite a dispiriting one—I refer especially to Labour members. After 16 years of failure in the Parliament, we would think that there would be some analysis, some understanding of the problem, and some possible solutions. However, we heard nothing about those from Alex Rowley. All we heard was the usual soundbites and attack lines.

Everyone who is involved in bus travel and who has had a constituent come to them about an issue knows that two of the main issues are climate change and social exclusion. However, the causes of some of the problems that we have talked about have been the pandemic, Brexit and, in particular, the recruitment of drivers, which Fiona Hyslop made a point about. For example, every time that Lothian Buses goes on a recruitment spree, every other part of the country loses out in terms of the pool of drivers. Of course, many people—not least people from eastern Europe—who were previously happy to be drivers have been prevented from being a driver because of Brexit.

Will the member take an intervention?

Keith Brown

No. I have only four minutes.

There was not a word about Brexit or the pandemic. Everybody knows that the pandemic has altered people’s work patterns and commuting practices. During lockdown, many drivers sought other jobs and did not return. As I said, Brexit cut off access to another source of drivers. I have seen the shortage of drivers in my constituency leading to reductions in services on a couple of routes—

Will the member take an intervention?

Keith Brown

I have said that I am not taking any interventions. I have only four minutes.

Is that a uniquely Scottish problem? Of course it is not, any more than it is a uniquely Clackmannanshire and Dunblane problem.

Neil Bibby invited us to look at the record of the Labour Party elsewhere in the UK. Let us do that. Let us look, for example, at Wales, where the Labour Party is actually in power—

I said look at our record here—in Scotland.

Keith Brown

I know that this is very uncomfortable—it will not last very long.

The number of passenger journeys per person has been decreasing across Great Britain since 2008-09. In Wales, the number of journeys per person is less than half the rate in both Scotland and England. Although the total distance travelled on buses in Wales increased by almost a third compared with the previous year, the total distance travelled decreased most in Wales compared with pre-pandemic levels, and that has recovered the least compared with England and Scotland.

I do not quote those figures to try to make the Welsh Government look bad, but merely to point out that the Labour Party patently does not have a magic wand to fix bus services in Wales, and it does not have one—and it has not suggested one—for Scotland either.

Of course it is the job of Opposition parties to oppose and to highlight where the Government might be going wrong, but they also have a duty to be honest with the public and to make suggestions if they think that things should be done differently.

Let us look at the motion. We are told that the improvement of bus services should happen more quickly and that local authorities should have more resources—although I do not know how the Tories are going to manage that by cutting £500 million from the Scottish budget through tax cuts. There is simply no indication from either side of where the money will come from. When we are dealing with a virtually fixed-size budget, that is simply irresponsible.

Surely the motion was lodged because the Labour Party wanted to do more than simply gripe. There must be a big idea—a cunning plan to transform bus transport in Scotland. It is to cap fares. That is the solution put forward by the Labour Party. There is no reference to, or understanding of, the impact of Brexit or the pandemic. What a paucity of vision that represents.

One idea on its own is highly unlikely to lead to the increased passenger numbers that help to make bus routes more sustainable. We need a broad package of measures, and that is what the Scottish Government is addressing.

Just this month, the Minister for Transport launched a £300,000 campaign co-funded by the Scottish Government and the Confederation of Passenger Transport to encourage people to choose the bus. Meanwhile, the various concessionary bus travel schemes brought in by the Scottish Government have now reached the significant stage at which 100 million bus journeys are being taken each year by holders of one or other of the concessionary travel scheme cards.

I am absolutely delighted that the people of Clackmannanshire and Dunblane and people throughout Scotland are taking advantage of the concessionary travel cards available. Those figures underline the SNP’s commitment to widening access to free bus travel.

For that reason, I support the amendment in Kevin Stewart’s name.


Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

Aspects of this debate have been really good to hear. It is clear that there is cross-party consensus on the benefits of buses. Alex Rowley has described them as “a key lifeline service”. Maurice Golden developed that and described them as

“lifelines for our communities by providing the most vulnerable people with everyday access to shopping, services and socialising.”

Brian Whittle stressed

“just how important a role Scotland’s bus networks have to play in reaching our net zero targets.”

It was important to hear about the challenges faced by our bus operators—for example, the cuts to local authorities that left COSLA warning that incredibly stretched levels of funding will prevent councils from providing the bus services that they currently provide. Maurice Golden told us that that is happening in Dundee right now and, just today, The Press and Journal has reported that Stagecoach has slashed bus services across Aberdeen and the shire following council cuts.

We heard from Brian Whittle about the lack of investment in renewables charging infrastructure, and we heard about the Scottish Government’s decision to cut the network support grant in March, which has led to operators warning of rises in fares and a reduction in services.

That lack of support is stark. The Confederation of Passenger Transport tells us that, although the bus sector accounts for 75 per cent of all public transport trips, FirstBus pointed out that each bus journey is supported by 27p from the Scottish Government. By contrast, trains get £3.27 per trip. That cross-modal piece is important. That is why the failures to introduce a cross-modal travel card and to conduct a fair fares review are so concerning.

What has been so thoroughly depressing is a point that was well made by Alex Rowley at the head of the debate. We heard from Graham Simpson that the Government’s goal is to remove the majority of the country’s diesel bus fleet in favour of zero emission models by the end of 2023, but that it has achieved a mere 16 per cent; we heard from Brian Whittle that the target to reduce car kilometres by 20 per cent by 2030 lacks detail and credibility; and we heard that the Scottish Government’s £500 million bus partnership fund to deliver bus priority measures has paid out just 5 per cent since 2019. Nevertheless, the Scottish Government comes to the chamber with an amendment that utterly fails to acknowledge the issues. Instead, it tries to present a picture in which all in the garden is rosy.

On the rare occasions when issues were acknowledged by speakers such as Fiona Hyslop and Keith Brown, they blamed the operators, the councils and the pandemic, and tried to distract from their failings in the chamber by talking about Wales. That is what I find the most galling. As Monica Lennon put it, we cannot solve a problem if we do not admit to it in the first place. If the Government will not acknowledge the problems and challenges, it cannot meaningfully implement the solutions.

We have all been sent those solutions—we have been sent really exciting data-driven, evidence-based, detailed solutions by Transform Scotland, the Confederation of Passenger Transport, FirstBus, the Poverty Alliance, Friends of the Earth Scotland and more. In contrast, as Alex Rowley said, we have heard no vision—no clue—from the Scottish Government, and it will continue to fail the people of Scotland.

All those organisations are watching to see whether the Government will acknowledge the problems, listen to the Opposition parties and learn from those submissions, or whether SNP and Green MSPs vote at decision time for a weak amendment and more decline under a failing Government. We shall see.


Kevin Stewart

I welcome the opportunity to highlight the importance of bus services in Scotland. I wish that the debate had been a little more consensual, as Alex Rowley claimed that he wanted it to be, but that has not been the case. It is interesting that there is always a real kickback from the Opposition parties when it is pointed out to them the differences that exist between the situation here and that in other parts of the UK, where Labour or the Tories are in power. Not everything in the garden is rosy there, either.

A number of members were quite realistic in their speeches. Ms Hyslop and Mr Brown pointed out the difficulties that Brexit is causing. If Opposition members were to speak to the bus operators, they would find that, in many parts of the country, the operators face a significant difficulty with driver shortages, which is having an impact on services.

Will the minister give way?

Kevin Stewart

No. I want to continue.

Let us look at some of the support that we are providing. I have already highlighted how much financial support we are providing to ensure that our bus services are the best that they can be. In 2023-24, more than £420 million is being allocated to that.

Another interesting aspect of the debate has been the fact that while Labour members have called for more subsidy, Alex Rowley has said that he does not want money to go into the pockets of shareholders. I agree with him on that, so what do Labour members actually want?

I think that our concessionary fare schemes provide the best possible way of ensuring that we get patronage on our buses. The extension of the young persons scheme to under-22s has led to the provision of more bus services in certain areas. Earlier this year, West Coast Motors doubled the frequency on one of its main routes because of the increase in patronage among under-22s. That is a good thing. More than 62 million free bus journeys have been made because of the scheme for under-22s, as Mr Ruskell pointed out. That shows that there is an appetite for sustainable travel in Scotland. We are aiming to build lifetime habits.

Alex Rowley

I use the buses, and I was quite shocked by the massive increase in bus fares that was implemented a few weeks ago. Does the minister accept that a 15 per cent increase in bus fares is a barrier to poorer people being able to access public transport?

Kevin Stewart

Yes, I do. That is why we are undertaking the fair fares review. We want to get this right. It is not good that folk face those increases, and we are doing something about it by holding that review. I hope that Mr Rowley will support it and encourage folk to get involved in it.

The Scottish Government has supported the decarbonisation of approximately 15 per cent of the Scottish public service bus fleet—[Interruption.] This week, we provided an additional £58 million of funding for the ScotZEB fund—the Scottish zero emission bus challenge fund—thereby increasing the environmental benefits of bus travel.

I heard the Tories say, “That’s terrible.” The position here is a hell of a lot better than the position south of the border, that is for sure.

We have ensured that local transport authorities now have the power to run their own bus services, and further secondary legislation to allow bus franchising and partnership working will be introduced later this year. I hope that local authorities will be ambitious, have vision and set up those municipal services across the board.

You need to conclude, I am afraid.

We may have different views; I am willing to listen to those views as we move forward consensually.

I call Sarah Boyack to wind up the debate.


Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

It would have been a more constructive debate if the minister had not started by deleting most of our motion. We have agreement right across the chamber on the importance of bus services to our constituents. In the early days of the Parliament, I introduced free bus passes for the over-60s. Through a Labour amendment to the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, we made sure that we got support for municipal ownership of bus services, because we know the benefits of Lothian Buses and we know, from the situation in Manchester and London, the benefits of using municipal ownership to deliver services.

We welcomed the introduction of free bus passes for under-22s. Our choice would have been under-26s, but that measure gives young people the opportunity to use buses as a matter of course. However, as Monica Lennon said, that only works if those young people have bus services to use. As Neil Bibby said, we need conditionality. We need to get the maximum benefit from the huge amount of money that is going into bus services and we need to get the right response from the private companies that are taking that money.

In the past few years, the loss of bus services means that there are now 25 per cent fewer than there were a decade ago. Across parties, we have had excellent briefings from lots of organisations, which have highlighted the need for us to act now. Buses are vital to give people low-carbon choices.

Will the member give way?

If it is very brief.

Does Sarah Boyack think that #lovemybus week should be renamed #where’smybus week?

Sarah Boyack

Having met the organisers this morning, I know that we need actual buses. It is a case of, “Where’s my bus?”

That takes me on to digital connectivity. On the points that Beatrice Wishart made, we can see that there are massive areas of Scotland where there are no buses at all. There is also a digital disconnect, which is a particular issue for older people and people on lower incomes. Those people need to know about the availability of the buses that there are, and they need to know when those buses will arrive. We need to make sure that that information is accessible for older people. We need more, not less, real-time information at bus stops.

We need to make sure that people are able to use buses. A key issue in the research that we were sent was reliability: 83 per cent of those surveyed said that it was their top issue. People do not want to be stuck at a bus stop if they are elderly, with kids or trying to get to work on time. We are not only losing bus services; we are seeing fares rising, and this is at a point when we are seeing major amounts of money being spent.

We need to get value for money, and that means that we need political leadership from the SNP-Green Government. We are not seeing that. We need more promotion of the available bus services. We need investment to enable communities to be served, so that we make that shift to low-carbon buses. That is not just about having low-carbon services, but about having any services. It is about empowering and funding our local authorities to invest in bus priority schemes, to enable buses to be more reliable, and to make them more attractive to people who currently have to rely on cars.

As people move to electric vehicles, huge numbers of our constituents will not be able to afford such cars, and that will make buses more important than ever. We need to reverse the cuts that are taking place and add more services for the future. That will require municipal buses.

Today’s report by the Accounts Commission highlights that councils are at “breaking point”. The comments made by COSLA show that it knows that councils do not have the money to make the radical change needed.

We need a fares cap now, so that people can continue to use buses. We need conditionality for the money that the Scottish Government currently spends on buses through our over-60 and under-22 schemes. We need to see investing in and supporting bus services as a key action if we want to tackle social inequalities, shift people out of cars and tackle the climate emergency.

In addition, we need to address constituents’ current fears that there are more bus cuts to come. That is happening right across the country: in Renfrewshire, West Lothian and Pathhead in Midlothian, and even in Edinburgh, with Lothian Buses. Constituents in Edinburgh are writing to us because we have lost buses such as the 42, and we are losing the 41 and 49. We need action now, and we need a political commitment.

I go back to the minister’s first words. Can we have consensus? Yes. The cross-party group on sustainable transport has a mission, and it is telling the Scottish Government what to do now. Our motion sets out what we need now. If we accept the Conservative amendment, we could get action before the summer holidays. Although #lovemybus week is next week, “Where’s my bus?” is a problem for now. We need action from the SNP-Green Government now—not warm words and nice pledges, but action. Next week, the Government should announce what it is going to do to spend the money to get better results for our constituents—

Thank you, Ms Boyack. You need to conclude.

—because, trust me, the Government will not tackle the climate emergency without it.