Scottish Government offer of online talks on buses

Wednesday October 4th 2023


Written by Local Democracy Reporter, Stuart Sommerville

The Scottish Government has offered to meet West Lothian Council for talks on the future of bus services.

The email offer of an online call with the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Net Zero and Just Transition, Màiri McAllan MSP, came last night, a few hours after the Council’s Executive passed a motion calling for urgent talks with the First Minister and Transport Minister, local MSP Fiona Hyslop.

That motion followed initial discussions which took place on Thursday between the First Minister and West Lothian’s council leader Lawrence Fitzpatrick at a meeting of CoSLA, the umbrella organisation for local authorities in Scotland.

Commercial operators McGill’s announced late last Tuesday that it would be quitting all its routes in the county by December.

Councillor Fitzpatrick told a meeting of the Executive on Tuesday morning: “We raised the question with the First Minister at Cosla and he did agree that the transport minister and Transport Scotland would meet with me at the earliest opportunity.

“We are having to move at a real speed. Our job is to very quickly get round the table with the Scottish Government.

“They have the powers. They have the money which we don’t.”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said meetings had been confirmed with a government minister yesterday.

A council spokesman confirmed this morning that the council had received an email from the Scottish Government last night looking to set up a Zoom call with Màiri McAllan MSP.

No date has been set but council officers are hoping for a meeting next Tuesday.

During the meeting of the Executive SNP group depute leader Councillor Robert De Bold said he would have backed the Labour motion but branded it “too political” in stating that there had been under-investment in bus networks compared to rail services.

“I agree with what we’re asking for, just less of the politics.” Labour defended the wording of the motion as statements of fact.

The Network Support Grant for the bus network … has flat-lined at £50m since 2012, in comparison with the rail franchise budget which is £800m this year.

In yesterday’s meeting Labour questioned suggestions made online by the local SNP MP Hannah Bardell that she had concerns about how the bus contract had been run. She had added in her online message the council: “Have a duty to make sure that contracts are properly adhered to”.

Depute council leader, Labour’s Kirsteen Sullivan asked Public Transport Manager, Nicola Gill, to clarify the council’s position.

Mrs Gill said: “The council has no responsibility, duty or power for any regulatory or performance of management of commercial services. There is not one general contract run or led by the council for services. At this point 80% of bus mileage out there is run commercially that is not contracted by the council.”

Councillors around the chamber lined up to highlight the widespread anxiety from constituents fearful that they would not be able to get to work or medical appointments, and would struggle to travel to meet friends and family.

“This is going to have an untold and devastating impact. There will effectively be no bus service in West Lothian, Councillor Andrew McGuire told the meeting.

Mrs Gill told councillors: “There will be a significant impact on all services.”

An SNP amendment, and one from Conservative Angela Doran-Timson were defeated.

Council transport officers are currently working on long term proposals for public transport.

The motion also called for an update on talks with the Scottish Government and discussions with McGill’s to come back to the next meeting of the Executive in two weeks time.

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “We note the decision taken by McGills, which we understand is driven by low use of the services, coupled with the difficulties in recruiting bus drivers. The majority of bus services in Scotland are operated on a commercial basis by private bus companies in the open de-regulated market. The power to subsidise services deemed as socially necessary sits with local authorities.

“We are committed, alongside operators and local authorities, to improving services to ensure everyone has accessible public transport, regardless of geographic location. There is a broad package of long-term investment in bus, including through the National Concessionary Travel Schemes, Network Support Grant, Community Bus Fund, and for bus priority infrastructure.

“There is also an enhanced suite of options we are introducing for local transport authorities to improve bus services according to their local needs, including formal partnerships, franchising and running their own bus services.”

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