CAMPAIGNERS are calling for buses to be taken into public control for the first time in nearly 40 years and end the “chaos” of deregulation of services by Margaret Thatcher’s government.

The Better Buses for Strathclyde campaign will hold a demonstration outside the Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) last Friday, calling for it to use new powers allowing local transport authorities to develop franchise systems.

Campaigners want to see SPT follow the lead of Manchester, which recently launched the Bee Network and sees the local authority set fares, timetables and routes, while services are franchised to private companies.

The iconic orange Strathclyde buses disappeared following the Transport Act 1985, which led to SPT being forced to sell off its bus operations.

But since December 4, local transport authorities have been given new powers under the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 to again run bus services.

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Ellie Harrison, of Better Buses for Strathclyde campaign, said: “Franchising is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to be able to take the buses back into public control for the first since they were deregulated in 1986, the power has not existed until now.

“It is an opportunity to start to undo the damage that has been caused by bus deregulation.

“What we’re asking for is that SPT uses these powers – it’s a lengthy process to do the franchising – to basically look at all of the bus services in the region, decide where they want the services to go, the frequency of the services and set the timetables.

“They [would] basically control everything – they could dictate the colour of the buses, the emission standards of the buses, the terms and conditions of drivers etc.

“Everything can be standardised across the region in what is called the franchising framework, which is 12 local authorities in the Strathclyde area.

“It’s quite a large area, they would then break that up into sections and they could put those out to tender, so private bus companies could bid to run sections of that network. That is what has happened in Manchester.”

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Harrison, a long-time campaigner who has even written a musical about bus regulation, said it was “disgraceful” it had taken four years to give local authorities in Scotland the necessary powers to run bus services.

But she said SPT could also go further than Manchester by setting up a small publicly owned bus company as a first step towards building up in-house capacity and expertise in the coming years, which could tender for some of the sections of the network if services are brought back under public control.

Local transport authorities in Scotland have been able to do this since July 2022, while this power is not available south of the Border.

“The most important thing about franchises is when you get on the bus, my £2 shows up on my bank statement as Transport for Greater Manchester,” Harrison said.

“So my £2 has gone to the public body that is responsible for planning and coordinating the public transport network.

“The big problem with deregulation is all the profit is sucked off the profitable routes, then you have all these gaps left around the edges where they don’t want to run.

“SPT does fill in some of the gaps with subsidised services, but it has a really tiny budget, whereas if you do franchising, you package it all up together, so you are cross-subsidising busy routes with less busy routes and it is a much more sensible way of running a bus network.”

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Latest statistics show that 234 million journeys were made by bus across Scotland in 2021-22, a historic low – aside from the years of the pandemic – since figures were first recorded in 1989-90. In 2018-19 before the pandemic, there were 373m journeys.

An SPT spokesperson said it is developing a Strathclyde Regional Bus Strategy (SRBS) to invest in the future of buses.

“Initial findings of the SRBS have highlighted sustained patronage decline, shrinking network coverage, congestion induced delays, and above inflation fare increases, to be amongst the key issues and this has been set out in SPT’s Case for Change report,” the spokesperson said.

“Phase two of the SRBS will consider all options to address such issues, including the provisions set out in the 2019 Transport (Scotland) Act, with the intention to present a preferred way forward in March 2024 – including the proposed operational and funding model, as well as timescales for delivery."

The spokesperson added that any change would have to be founded on a “robust and strong business case, with sustainable funding sources identified”.

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said work on implementing the bus powers of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 had been paused during the pandemic.

The spokesperson added: “Since restarting work we have delivered powers for local authorities to run their own bus services, improved the information process when services are varied or cancelled and now commenced the provisions on Bus Services Improvement Partnerships (BSIPs) and franchising.”