By Philip Alston, Bassam Khawaja, and Rebecca Riddell

AFTER decades of chaotic and expensive privatisation, local authorities in Scotland will soon have an opportunity to take public control of their local buses. They should do so.

Margaret Thatcher’s government privatised and deregulated bus services in Scotland, Wales, and England outside London in 1985, largely prohibiting municipal services and leaving it to private operators to decide which routes to run and how much to charge. It predicted this would lead to “lower fares, new services, and more passengers.” Today, those claims seem farcical, with much of the bus sector in crisis, and transport failures causing great suffering to anyone dependent on buses to get to work, access services, and visit loved ones.

Running services for profit simply has not worked. In Scotland, ridership plummeted after deregulation, down 43 percent from 1986/87 to 2019/20. Fares are up 159 percent since the index started in 1995. When asked, Transport Scotland did not provide a figure for the number of routes that have been cut – but in England, it amounted to more than 3,000 in the past decade alone. Bus services are fragmented, with multiple operators running uncoordinated routes, each with their own tickets, schedules, and maps. And Scotland is spending hundreds of millions of pounds a year to subsidise bus networks, while private operators pay out generous shareholder dividends instead of reinvesting in service.

This failing approach has had a severe impact on people’s lives and rights. In a new report, we found that people have lost jobs and benefits, faced barriers to healthcare, been forced to give up on education, and sacrificed food and utilities because of a privatised bus service that isn’t working. People in cities like Glasgow said cuts to bus routes had prevented them from finding work, while many in rural areas have been all but abandoned.

This is no way to run an essential service on which so many rely. Buses account for hundreds of millions of journeys a year in Scotland, and they boost economic growth while alleviating poverty. A strong bus system is a remarkably effective way to ensure all people can participate in society –whether visiting the local library or community centre, shopping, attending a football match, or gathering with family and friends.

Glasgow will be hosting the UN Climate Change Conference in November, on the heels of a harrowing IPCC report finding that we are already out of time to prevent 1.5 degrees celsius of global warming. Public transportation is crucial to limiting emissions: one fully loaded double-decker bus can take 75 cars off the road. Investments in the bus system are cost-effective and changes can be implemented quickly. But instead of providing an attractive alternative, deregulated buses have been turning people away from public transportation and towards private cars. The UK government’s decarbonisation plan will do little if zero-emissions buses are running empty.

More fundamental change is needed. With political and financial support, public control or ownership would be more cost-effective and allow for reinvestment of profits, integrated networks, more efficient coverage, simpler fares, consistency with climate goals, and public accountability. Regulation in London and municipally owned operators such as in Edinburgh provide impressive counter-examples of what is possible.

Scotland is taking some important steps to improve bus services. Transport Scotland will commendably provide free bus travel in 2022 to those under age 22. And legislation passed in 2019 opens the door for public control of bus services through franchising as well as public ownership. An important public consultation is now underway to shape that process, and you can write in to support unfettered access to these options. But Transport Scotland has also created a bus partnership fund that would entrench the current privatised system instead of delivering the structural change that is necessary.

Scotland should avoid the mistakes of the UK Government, which doubled down on failed private partnerships in its new national bus strategy for England, and adopted a franchising process so onerous that no authority has successfully completed it. Instead, the Scottish Government should end its reliance on the private market to deliver bus services, lay out a clear process for moving toward public control and ownership, and provide local authorities with the financial and political backing to do so.

Scotland has an opportunity to remake its bus systems and ensure that they actually meet people’s needs. It should not settle for half measures that leave the existing failures in place.

Philip Alston is a Professor at NYU School of Law and former UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Bassam Khawaja and Rebecca Riddell co-direct the Human Rights and Privatization Project at NYU Law School’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice. They recently authored a report on the failures of the privatised bus system in Britain.