Bus operators in Scotland have seen an increase in anti-social behaviour since a flagship scheme allowing young Scots to travel for free was launched, The Herald can reveal.

It comes amid growing concern among local councillors and community campaigners across Scotland that the scheme could also be behind a rise in youth crime and disorder in Scotland’s towns, city centres and shopping precincts. 

At a local area committee in Livingston this week, councillors claimed that the free bus pass scheme is fuelling anti-social behaviour in a local shopping complex, with police saying that youngsters are travelling to the centre from Edinburgh and Fife ‘intent to cause trouble’. 

It is believed that youth disorder in the shopping centre is particularly evident on Fridays afternoons, when most schools have finished early.

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Labour Councillor Tom Conn told a Linlithgow local Area Committee: “My understanding with the problems with the retail centre was that youths were coming from Fife with intent with a plan to commit assault.

“The Under 22 bus pass seems to have opened up opportunities and travel costs are not a barrier to moving further afield. It seems to be the unintended consequence of having a free bus pass.”

Speaking after the committee meeting, Councillor Doran-Timson said: “It’s extremely disappointing and concerning that youths from both outside West Lothian and across West Lothian are using their ‘free bus passes’ to travel to the centre at Livingston and cause trouble upsetting shoppers. This situation is totally unacceptable and I hope the police deal with this in the manner it requires.

“Shoppers and retailers should not have to put up with this anti-social behaviour and those responsible must be made aware we will not accept this in Livingston.”

The Herald: Bus operators have noted an upturn of incidents of anti-social behaviour since the scheme was launched.Bus operators have noted an upturn of incidents of anti-social behaviour since the scheme was launched. (Image: .)

It follows claims made in August last year by a leading Glasgow community campaigner that the bus pass scheme was behind a rise in youth disorder in certain areas of Glasgow city centre. 

Alex O'Kane, who runs community Facebook group No1Seems2Care, said he believes that the free bus scheme, coupled with the cost-of-living crisis, has created a “perfect storm” and led to youths travelling outwith their local area to congregate in the city centre “in search of new forms of excitement”. 

The Young Persons’ (under-22) Free Bus Travel Scheme began on January 31, 2022, giving all those aged five to 21 years old the ability to travel on buses free of charge.

Almost 45 million free bus journeys were made by under-22s in the first year of the ‘landmark’ policy, with the overall uptake from the estimated 930,000 young Scots eligible for the scheme estimated to be above 60 per cent. The uptake for those aged 12-15 is higher at 69.3 per cent  and for those aged 16-21 the figure is 71.5 per cent.

Despite its success, First Bus, Scotland’s largest bus operator, confirmed to The Herald it has experienced “a slight increase” in youth disorder on its network of routes since the scheme was launched, although it added that the rise “cannot be directly attributed” to the roll-out of the scheme. 

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The operator, which has a fleet of more than 950 buses and runs services on more than 80 different routes across the country, also said that it is currently communicating with Police Scotland in respect of a handful of recent incidents of deliberate fire-raising involving youths on its bus network.

Last week, in Glasgow’s Mosspark area, one of its buses was extensively damaged and 12 passengers were evacuated after a fire was deliberately started on the top deck of the bus. 

Police are keen to trace three youths, aged between 15 and 18, who got on the bus at nearby Silverburn Shopping Centre, in connection with the fire.

Linda Shields, Operations Director at First Bus Scotland, told The Herald: “We have experienced a slight increase in anti-social behaviour and continue to follow these up. This slight increase cannot be directly attributed to the introduction of free travel for Under 22s. 

“We are also currently having discussions with Police Scotland around a small number of fire raising incidents, resulting in ongoing investigations and individuals being charged. 

“There are a huge number of benefits to providing young people the opportunity to travel free of charge. Offering young people the freedom to explore their towns and cities, and get about independently, is incredibly important for social equality, personal growth and, of course, the environment.”

The Herald: The Young Persons’ (under-22) Free Bus Travel Scheme was launched on January 31, 2022.The Young Persons’ (under-22) Free Bus Travel Scheme was launched on January 31, 2022. (Image: PA)

The Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) Scotland, the trade association for the bus and coach industries in Scotland, said that, while the scheme has been a “huge success”, some bus operators have noted an increase in anti-social behaviour since it was launched last year. 

Paul White, Director of CPT Scotland: “The under 22s Free Bus Travel Scheme has been a huge success. It is encouraging young people to consider bus use, growing appreciation of public transport and hopefully fostering lasting commitments to active and sustainable travel.

“Some operators have noted an upturn of incidents of anti-social behaviour since the scheme was launched. Operators would like to assure passengers that their safety is our top priority. We are working with government and other stakeholders to educate young people about bus travel and to be respectful of others, while also considering what actions to take against repeat offenders.”

The rise in youth disorder on Scotland’s bus network has prompted one MSP to call on the Scottish Government to launch an investigation into the “worrying” reports, amid concerns it could “damage support” for the flagship scheme.

Scottish Labour Transport spokesperson Neil Bibby MSP said: “The SNP must investigate these worrying reports and take action to ensure that public transport is safe for all passengers.

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“It is important that instances of antisocial behaviour don’t damage support for this important scheme.”

In response, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “There is no evidence to suggest that there has been a rise in youth crime in Scottish cities as a result of the provision of free bus passes to people under the age of 22.

“Free bus passes help reduce social inequality, provide better access to work, education and leisure and give younger generations a better start in life.”

Police Scotland Chief Inspector Nicola Robison said: “We are very aware of the negative impact that anti-social behaviour has on communities across Scotland. 

“We work closely with partner agencies, including transport providers and local authorities, to address concerns about youth disorder and anti-social behaviour and we will proactively deal with those involved.

 “We are committed to steering young people away from anti-social behaviour and we will work with partners to identify prevention opportunities and ensure the best use of available resources to provide a long term sustainable solution.”