As Falkirk Council step in to run a number of key bus services, Age Scotland’s Callum Chomczuk asks for feedback to assure the future for our least profitable but socially necessary transport routes.
A somewhat small but quite significant story was reported by the BBC last week… Falkirk Council have decided to step in a run a number of key bus services that First Group have pulled out of running. Is this a return to nationalisation of the bus network from the 1970’s? Will we see a return to centralised planning of public services and the drafting of five year plans in town halls across the country? Probably not, nonetheless the community of Falkirk are fortunate that their council don’t just say that a well-functioning public transport system is central to their aspiration to grow the local economy, facilitate health journey’s and tackle isolation but at a time when local government budget are still being cut, they are taking steps to secure these vital services.
Unfortunately these cuts are not isolated to Falkirk. All over Scotland services are being withdrawn by commercial operators because they cannot make enough money to service the routes and the cut to the main funding pot available to bus operators, the bus service operators grant ( BSOG) is making this situation worse. If like me you live in Edinburgh then you can get any number of buses to take you through town. If however you are like my mum and live in Falkirk then you were, until the council stepped in, under real threat of being isolated in your own home.
I am not here to plead to case for commercial operators, they can do that themselves, but the reality is that with fuel costs rising fewer and fewer public bus routes are profitable and when subsidies are being cut the private sector is always going to pull out and leave the public (and third) sector to tackle to social consequences.
That is unless we take action to address the issue. Why should we allow commercial operators to simply to pull out of communities. For starters if they want to run the profitable services then we should sell them as part of package that includes some of the least profitable and socially necessary routes.
However we can still do better than that. Anyone who has had the fortune to engage with the Scotland’s community transport sector will know how crucial a role it plays in providing key transport links when commercial operators have pulled out of a community. Unfortunately though most of these operators are living hand to mouth, unsure if they will be around the following year. These organisations need security of funding and ultimately this would be best achieved if the holders of the concessionary bus pass were allowed to use them on all community transport service. Currently for many in rural and remote communities the bus pass is next to useless as there are no commercial buses to access and they need to pay a fare for community transport services.
Such a change would invigorate the sector and transform it overnight into one of the most dynamic social enterprise models and to this end Age Scotland are launching a community transport campaign next year, but we do need your help. If you have any experience of poor transport links or you depend on community transport to get out and about then we want to hear from you. Your testimonials and experiences are key to convincing MSPs that the current support system for the bus system does not meet the needs of Scotland’s older people and that investment in community transport is the ultimate form of preventive spending.
Callum Chomczuk is Age Scotland’s Senior Policy and Parliamentary Officer.