West Lothian calls for emergency bus funding

Friday September 29th 2023


Written by Local Democracy Reporter, Stuart Sommerville

A senior Labour councillor has called on the Scottish Government to reinstate emergency funding for bus services in the county.

The call comes days after the county’s major service supplier McGills Eastern Scottish announced it was quitting all its routes by December – starting next month with the X22 and X24 Livingston Edinburgh services axed which will be from 15th October.

The council reiterated that since deregulation of bus service provision in the 1980s, local authorities have no control over the commercial bus market.

McGills said that despite investing around £4.5 million in Eastern Scottish ongoing losses are simply unsustainable.

The firm added: “Too many operators serving too few customers for too long has destabilised the market in West Lothian.”

And rival operator Lothian Country refused to comment on the situation beyond recognising the disruption that would be caused.

West Lothian Council had previously called upon the Scottish Government to reinstate the Covid recovery support for buses and expedite the Fair Fares review promised after the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections.

Executive councillor for the Environment and Sustainability Tom Conn said: “The council has no authority over the commercial market or operations so powers and legislation handed down by the Government is one thing, but they aren’t realistic without the resources to go with them.

“The Scottish Government removed Covid recovery support for buses on 31st March 2023 despite representations for this to continue from the Confederation of Passenger Transport, amongst others.

“The Network Support Grant from the Scottish Government has flat-lined at £50m since 2012, despite bus travel accounting for three quarters of all public transport journeys in Scotland.”

Councillor Conn added: “We have previously written to Kevin Stewart the former Minister for Transport asking him to reinstate the Covid recovery support for buses and expedite the Fair Fares review promised after the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections as part of the Bute House agreement with the Scottish Greens in August 2021.

“In response the Scottish Government explained that work was going on in the Scottish Government, which is to be welcomed, but they did not accept the council’s requests.”

Lothian Country has recently introduced services in West Lothian to capture growing business along the A71 corridor specifically around the Calderwood housing developed in West Calder.

Contacted by the Local Democracy Reporting Service after the news of the McGills withdrawl a spokesman said: “Lothian is aware of McGil’s sudden decision to withdraw services from West Lothian. We recognise the impact that this news will have on many who rely on bus services in the area, however we are unable to comment further at this early stage.”

Councillor Conn said the reintroduction of the emergency funds released during Covid “may help”.

“In the meantime, more and more services are reduced locally and bus users suffer. This funding might not solve the bus crisis locally, but it may help. We need to focus on finding a solution and that rests with the Scottish Government in terms of funding and bus regulation.”

“An immediate review needs to take place to understand what would be required to try and realign the subsidised and remaining commercial bus networks.”

Councillor Conn added: “The council has maintained funding for a number of subsidised bus services, particularly where villages have no alternative bus service, despite a predicted £39 million budget gap over the next five years.

“What is clear to everyone is that councils don’t have the resources to meet current levels of service delivery, so we cannot find funding to solve the bus crisis.

“The scale of the budget reductions facing the council mean that the council can’t continue to deliver existing services as they are currently provided. The idea that the council can step in to fund new services is completely unrealistic and unachievable given the funding position we are in. It is our hope that the Scottish Government acts now to help the bus crisis in West Lothian.”

The Transport Act 1985 deregulated bus services in the UK, moving from council-run buses to an open commercial market. The vast majority of the McGill bus services are commercial services.

The majority of bus services in Scotland are operated on a commercial basis by private bus companies. Provided that an operator registers a service with the Office of the Traffic Commissioner they can operate any route they wish to any timetable.

It is the reversal of this deregulation that Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham, has championed in a bid to revive and standardise bus services in and around the city.

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