Last month, I was pleased to see a new campaign launched to bring our buses back into public control.

Better Buses for Strathclyde, a coalition of trade unions, environmental groups, health charities, students, pensioners associations and more, have come together to demand services across the West of Scotland are re-regulated, with routes set up based on the needs of residents rather than the profits of shareholders.

Given the relentless cuts to lifeline services we’ve seen here in North Ayrshire in recent years, it’s a welcome and overdue development.

Most readers will know how we ended up with the dysfunctional system we have today.
Margaret Thatcher infamously broke up Scotland’s publicly owned bus companies in the 1980s and opened services up to competition.

The stated intention was to “lower fares” and encourage “new services and more passengers”.

We’ve seen the opposite.

Between 1995 and 2020, fares in Scotland rose around 58 per cent in real terms. Between 1987 and 2020, the number of passenger journeys plummeted by 43 per cent.

In the words of UN rapporteur Phillip Alston, privatisation has left us with “an expensive, unreliable, fragmented, and dysfunctional bus system that’s slowly falling apart”.

The Scottish Government already funds private operators to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds a year, with over half of all operator revenue coming from local or central government.

And yet, based on operator statistics, the Better Buses for Strathclyde campaign estimate around 10 per cent of public subsidy leaks out to shareholders in dividends annually. 

Meanwhile, these same operators cut services left, right and centre.

We’ve seen Stagecoach axe the X34 route and cut down service on the X36, meaning North Ayrshire residents, particularly those in Garnock Valley who lack alternative accessible travel options to Glasgow, are left travelling via Kilmarnock or paying over the odds to get to the nearest train station.

Over the past year, I’ve repeatedly lobbied Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) to explore the possibility of subsidising a replacement service to cover the gaps.

Unsurprisingly, the answer has been that it’s not possible due to financial constraints, with other services being supported across the region due to similar cuts in those areas.

This isn’t sustainable, but there are other ways of doing things.

Following legislation passed in 2019, local authorities and transport partnerships now have the power to set up municipal bus companies, with the final regulations for these options to be put in place next month.

This will allow Strathclyde to follow the example of places like Greater Manchester, where the network has been brought into public ownership, fares have been capped and options to integration with other transport are being developed.

The West of Scotland can’t afford to be left behind, particularly when so many rely on our bus network.

As it stands, the Scottish Government’s funding streams still incentivise regressive “private-public partnerships”.

It's time for that to end. The funding and resources must be in place so we can build a modern, publicly owned bus network fit for the 21st century.