It’s time we took back control of our buses

The political outrage and public outcry following First Bus’s decision to end night bus service in Glasgow appeared to take the company by surprise. FirstGroup PLC, which doubled its profits to £82,100,000 in 2023 and receives significant public subsidies, has canceled an ambulance service for our night economy workers for fears it will hurt its profit margins. The company said its use of the night buses over the past year does not justify maintaining the service. We say that short-term profit motives should not take precedence over public services.

In 2021-22, more than half (£329m, 55%) of bus operators’ revenue came from local or central government subsidies. It is estimated that around 10% of these public funds flow directly out of the industry via dividend payments to shareholders. In other words, private companies on our public service networks are making profits that they might not otherwise have made if the public did not foot the bill, while eliminating critical bus routes that the public depends on. The public is completely screwed, but not in the way it should be.

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FirstGroup’s response was ridiculous. First Bus chief executive Duncan Cameron suggested that it should be the night workers themselves who should drive the buses home. How stupid of me – why didn’t I think of that? Instead of decently paid bus drivers with fair terms and conditions providing a service to the general public, it should be Glasgow’s bar, social and hospitality workers who should be driving an 11 tonne bus home after a full day’s work.

Mr Cameron admitted the idea was “crazy”. That’s a polite phrase to say the least. What chance do workers have when this mindset is part of the running of a public transport network in Scotland?

To bring it back to reality for a moment, we are once again seeing how profitable corporations are blackmailing the public. It’s the same script. The same plot. The same result. Only the names have changed. Whether you’re FirstGroup, British Gas or Sainsbury’s, it’s clear that workers are being exploited because, in this cost of living crisis, they appear to have the audacity to afford the essentials – transport, energy and food.

The feigned political indignation is of no use to the workers either. Glasgow-based politicians, including the incumbent and former First Minister, co-signed a letter to First Bus, in effect asking the company to reintroduce night bus service.

Is this really the best we can expect from our political class? It is deeply concerning that those in power have only had to be so kind as to ask for service workers and the public simply relies on not being cut.

Asking politely is of little use. Everything progressive that our movement has achieved—higher wages, better working conditions, fairer conditions—was owed to the collective direct action of working people. Our Safe Home Campaign, recently relaunched and driven by the youth of the Scottish trade union movement, aims to do just that and asks far more from employers and our public transport providers. Safe Home aims to shed light on the plight of workers in the night economy or those working irregular hours – social workers, aviation, logistics and extended hospitality workers – and the efforts they are making must do to get home safely night. Workers shouldn’t be put in a frankly dangerous situation where they have to sacrifice nearly a third of their nightly wages and afford an expensive taxi home – if they manage to get one at all – or, worse, about something completely avoidable and potentially risky running home. Building on partnership with others across our movement, including the Unite the Union Get Me Home Safely campaign focused on hospitality, young workers across the country are taking charge of their working lives and demanding accessible, affordable and public ones Transport networks that serve them, not shareholders.

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This is part of a far broader problem. Transport emissions are the largest contributor to Scotland’s carbon footprint and are the area where the least progress has been made. Disadvantaging private car use may be justified, but building viable and attractive alternatives – buses and trains – is key to changing the way people travel. Not that the majority of Glasgow’s night workers dream of owning a car.

Years of dependence on the private sector and the lack of coherent public funding for our transport networks have brought us to this point. Ever since Scotland’s bus services were deregulated by Margaret Thatcher’s government more than 30 years ago, fares have risen and passenger numbers have fallen. Since 1995, fares have risen by 58% in real terms, while passenger numbers have fallen by 43%.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Municipalities can transfer bus networks into public ownership via municipal bus companies. Lothian Buses (which runs a fairly extensive night bus service) is the only public bus operator in Scotland. Nonetheless, the Transport Act 2019 contains powers for public scrutiny of services, including the re-regulation of our bus network. The Scottish Government has given local authorities some money to build bus infrastructure, but has made access to that money conditional on partnering with private bus operators like FirstGroup. A fund that was supposed to support municipalities in setting up their own public bus networks actually prevented this.

As Glasgow and the rest of Scotland recover from the pandemic, now is the time to fundamentally change the balance of power in the country. We cannot afford to return to a failed economic model in which we rely on the private sector to provide for the common good. Instead of lining the pockets of shareholders, we need to take back control of our buses and broader public services so they are run by the people, for the people, not for the profiteers.

Roz Foyer is Secretary General of the Scottish Trades Union Congress

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