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Lochaber Transport Forum has taken the Scottish Government to task over what it says is its ‘timidity and lack of ambition’ for rural bus services.
The comments came after news that Hitrans, the regional transport partnership for the Highlands, is drawing up an action plan in a bid to halt the sharp decline in the use of bus services in rural and island communities, which has been heightened by the impacts of Covid-19.
The partnership wants more funding from the Scottish Government to be targeted on sustaining rural and island bus services and believes lessons can be learned from the pandemic to tailor future services more closely to the needs of local communities, with major input from community transport groups.
Specifically, Hitrans is advocating the reinstatement of a Rural Transport Fund and the Regional Transport Partnership capital passenger transport grant to support improvements to infrastructure and public transport capital assets including within the community transport sector.
Also recommended is the introduction of an Enhanced Demand Responsive Transport funding stream – managed at Regional Transport Partnership level and developed collaboratively with local authorities and community anchor groups.
Partnership board chairman Caol and Mallaig councillor Allan Henderson is to write to Michael Matheson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Transport Infrastructure and Connectivity, to recommend the new measures to better support rural and island communities which he says have been hit hardest by the pandemic and which are not eligible for much of the existing and new support for bus services.
Mr Henderson said many residents who were reliant on subsidised local bus services and community transport for access have become increasingly isolated through the lockdown and the Covid experience.
‘We now have the challenge – with partners – to support these residents, often younger residents and older people, to become socially active again, to regain their mobility and improve their wellbeing,’ added Mr Henderson.
‘This is a major challenge for the coming months and years and one in which local bus services and community transport should have a significant role if it is supported. This is a prime example of where transport affords benefits far beyond transport itself, benefitting wider health and social care services.’
But Lochaber Transport Forum chairman Brian Murphy told the Lochaber Times that if the Hitrans proposals are agreed and funded in full, although welcome, it would only be reversing the cuts of the last decade.
‘The real problem with bus transport is the timidity and lack of ambition of the Scottish Government which has resulted in 100 million fewer bus journeys over the last 10 years in Scotland while at the same time there’s been a 13 per cent increase in new cars registered,’ said Mr Murphy.
‘What’s needed is to re-introduce regulation of bus services to allow local authorities to run buses as used to be the case prior to Mrs Thatcher de-regulating them in the 1980s.
‘In the year when Glasgow will be hosting the UN Climate Change Conference, the government needs to be seen to be at the forefront of efforts to reduce carbon emissions. They should be looking at what other European countries have been doing in this regard, like free bus transport for young people and the over 60s.’
However, Mr Henderson believes there is potential to benefit from community involvement on the back of the strength of the community response to the Covid pandemic. Growth of community anchor organisations with a will to shape and deliver change and services within their communities would make a difference.
‘This could be captured through the development of targeted funding for rural and island areas focused on delivering across all four of the National Transport Strategy priorities – reducing inequalities, taking climate action, helping deliver inclusive growth and improving health and wellbeing,’ he said.
‘There is a real opportunity to deliver services in new ways, using technology as well as community involvement, to inform good service design and delivery for the years ahead.’
Bus services, such as this Shiel Buses service, are a vital link for rural areas including Lochaber. NO F47 Shiel Bus
Brian Murphy. Photograph: Iain Ferguson The Write Image.