Campaigners have branded a claim made by Transport Scotland that no correspondence exists about its flagship bus partnership fund policy as “absurd”.
Using freedom of information law The Ferret asked for all internal and external correspondence from ministers and senior civil servants involved in decisions about the £500m fund from 19 July until 21 March. But the Scottish Government said in reply that no information was held.
Our request was made following concerns raised by campaigners that the criteria of the bus partnership fund would prevent councils from setting up publicly-run bus companies, despite provision made for this in the Transport Bill. Instead, only organisations which have set-up bus service improvement partnerships (BSIPs) with commercial bus companies operating locally, are able to apply for the fund.
Yet despite claims from the government that it held no information on the issue, Friends of the Earth Scotland provided The Ferret with several pieces of correspondence it says should have been in the scope of the freedom of information request.
They included an invite sent in November to Friends of the Earth (FoE) staff from Transport Scotland’s head of bus regulatory and funding policy, in which he requested “a chat” regarding the bus partnership fund criteria.
The environmental charity also shared a letter to FoE director Richard Dixon from Michael Matheson, now Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport – dated 20 December – in which Matheson references a meeting between officials and FoE staff about concerns that local authorities would not be able to both set-up a BSIP and run their own bus company.
The letter references the bus partnership fund, which was launched last November, several times describing it as a “landmark, long-term capital investment of over £500m for bus priority measures”. The fund, Matheson continues, aims to make bus journeys “quicker and more reliable”, and in turn encourage more people to make the choice to travel by bus.
Transport Scotland told The Ferret that our FoI may have produced different results if it had requested all correspondence from civil servants and ministers, without the use of the word “senior” in regard to civil servants.
FoE campaigner Gavin Thomson said Transport Scotland’s claim there had been “no discussion whatsoever” about a £500m fund was “absurd”.
“While this may seem comical, there is a serious issue lying behind this,” he added.
“The Scottish Government is using this much-needed funding stream to prevent regulation and public ownership – powers which were recently devolved to councils. Councils badly need their share of this £500m bus partnership fund, so this funding criteria is effectively pushing councils away from starting up a publicly owned operator.
“There is a real issue with transparency here, and the Scottish Government needs to explain this decision.”
Monica Lennon, Scottish Labour spokesperson for net zero, energy and transport, claimed it “beggared belief” for Transport Secretary to claim it “didn’t correspond once with anyone, internally or externally” about the flagship fund.
“Bus service improvement partnerships in Scotland will only cement deregulation and continue the broken model that is already failing our people and planet,” she added.
The Scottish Government insists the decision to make the bus partnership fund available only to BSIPs, which must include private bus companies as members, does not prevent them from running their own bus companies.
However campaigners’ concerns are backed by a report released this week by Philip Alston, the former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, which claims the UK privatisation of buses breached human rights because it left people unable to access basic needs such as work, education and healthcare.
In the Public Transport, Private Profit report Alston claimed the bus partnerships amount to a “failed middle ground that should be phased out in favour of public control and ownership”.
Ellie Harrison, of public transport campaign group Get Glasgow Moving, described the bus partnership fund as “ill conceived”. She and others have been calling for Glasgow City Council to follow the lead of Lothian buses and set-up a publicly run bus company.
It comes against a background of raising fares and a reduced number of routes, across Scotland. In Alston’s report Transport Scotland itself reported that fares had risen by 159 per cent – or 58 per cent when allowing for inflation – since 1995. This is higher in some parts of Scotland.
“At the moment the Scottish Government is using Covid-19 as an excuse for not yet having enacted these powers, nearly two years on from the Transport Act being passed in 2019,” Harrison added.
“Meanwhile, it is prematurely trying to force local authorities into so-called ‘bus services improvement partnerships’ (BSIPs) – by far the weakest of the three powers in the Act – by bribing councils through the bus partnership fund.
“This will lock us into a broken privatised system for years to come, and we will never achieve the transformation of our public transport network that is necessary to to meet our climate targets.”
Dougie Maguire, Unite co-ordinating officer, claimed the bus fund was “deliberately biased and inherently rigged against the notion of municipally or publicly owned bus companies”.
Public buses already operated effectively across Europe, he added.
A Transport Scotland spokesperson said the bus partnership fund provided funding to tackle the negative impacts of congestion, with improved infrastructure helping to reduce journey time and increase reliability.
“A bid for funding through the BPF does not prevent a local authority from exploring any of the toolkit of options offered by the Act – be that further partnership working, local franchising or running their own buses,” they said.
It claimed that it aimed to provide information in response to freedom of information requests “whenever possible based on the terms of the request made” and said a review could be requested.
The freedom of information response in full
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