Bus subsidies agreed to save villages from being cut off

The decisions come after a tense month where tempers have frayed and public anger has played out across social media.

West Lothian bus subsidies agreed to save villages Blackridge and Greenrigg from being cut off LDRS

Communities which faced being cut off by the end of bus services have been thrown a lifeline after West Lothian Council agreed to step in to fund subsidised buses.

In a meeting behind closed doors on Tuesday councillors voted ten to three for a Labour motion which will support subsidised services to Blackridge and Greenrigg.   

Both communities were facing losing all bus services after operator McGill’s announced their intention to quit.

The council executive agreed to award a subsidised contract to McGill’s Eastern Scottish to extend the 21 service to provide a connection between Blackridge and Bathgate via Armadale. 

The council executive has also agreed a contribution to Strathclyde Partnership for Transport to reinstate a bus service linking Whitburn with the Shotts area, which will provide a connection for Greenrigg.

The services will be daytime through the week, crucially, very early morning and evening and weekend services will not be covered.

The council is also exploring the use of developer funding to re-establish any lost connection from Winchburgh to areas such as Livingston. A tender exercise is under way and an update will be brought back to council executive next month. 

This is necessary as the 600 service will be cancelled following McGill’s network change. The change removes the 600 service from Winchburgh.

The executive additionally agreed that the council write to Kevin Stewart MSP, the Scottish Government’s minister for transport to ask him to reinstate the Covid recovery support for buses and expiate the Fair Fares review.

The decisions come after a tense month where tempers have frayed and public anger has played out across social media.

And ahead of the meeting around 70 people gathered outside the Civic Centre in Livingston to protest the cutbacks.

Half a dozen McGill’s representatives, including its chief executive, Ralph Roberts, met with protesters to hear their concerns. They were blunt about the unsustainable nature of many of the services they had taken on when they secured contracts that had been held by First Bus.

While not a member of the executive, local Independent councillor for Blackridge, Stuart Borrowman was given permission to join the committee for the debate.

After the meeting he told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): “It’s a relief that the council has been able to respond in an agile manner to ensure that Blackridge isn’t cut off and that Armadale has a stronger service than it otherwise would.

“The lack of early and late and Sunday services remains a big concern, especially for workers with anti-social hours on modest incomes. 

“If bus companies say there just aren’t the drivers to work at these times then there needs to be a look at wage levels, incentives and training and recruitment.

“We can’t say working for a living is best, then make it impossible for some people to do that.”

Councillor Robert De Bold raised an amendment calling on the council to tender for additional services to cover all reduced or cut services funded by the council’s emergency reserves .

The SNP also called for a cross party  group to include community groups to “fully understand the impacts of the loss of services to communities with the remit to: Determine a strategy for these services to be maintained and investigate proposals for community transport as a long-term solution.”

Councillor De Bold later claimed a partial victory and praised protesters. 

He told the LDRS: “The administration has buckled to popular pressure and the hundreds that protested outside today’s meeting by proposing a partial replacement of bus services. I welcome their u-turn.

“We in the SNP group accepted these proposals; however, they do not go far enough and are not a like-for-like replacement – many workers still cannot get to or from work on time, many communities are more poorly served, and many Sunday services simply no longer exist. 

“However, I know for sure that we would not have achieved the partial replacement of services had it not been for the huge public outcry. I would like to thank all those who attended today to let the administration know that doing nothing was not acceptable.”

The Labour motion from councillor Tom Conn criticised the SNP stance, highlighting the party’s own budget proposals in February to slash  public transport subsidies by 50%.

Pre-budget council officers had suggested that ending public transport subsidies was one option for councillors to consider.

In contrast, said councillor Conn, Labour had rejected officer proposals and “fully restored the budget of £1,950,000 plus indexation of £256,000” for the year. 

After the meeting, councillor Conn, the executive councillor for the environment and sustainability said: “I am pleased that the report was approved this afternoon which allows those communities that were in danger of being left isolated as a consequence of McGill’s decision – Greenrigg and Blackbridge – to remain connected to the local area. 

“Officers advised that contrary to the rumours doing the rounds, no offer of emergency funding to support local bus services had been offered by the Scottish Government or rejected by West Lothian Council. 

“I sincerely hope that the transport minister will respond to our pleas to reinstate Covid recovery funding for bus operators which were removed as recently as March 31 2023 and which McGills confirmed was a factor in the recent decision to reduce services in West Lothian.

“I welcome the u-turn from the West Lothian SNP Group in declaring their support for local bus services after SNP councillors proposed to slash funding for local subsidised bus and DRT services by 50% in the budget meeting in February.

“I remain concerned about the current gaps in provision, particularly the lack of Sunday and evening services in many areas, and will ensure this is raised directly with the SNP Government minister for transport, Kevin Stewart MSP.”

Nicola Gill, the council’s public transport manager said: “It is clear through speaking to the bus operators that there are not enough resources within the bus industry to provide the same level of services that were provided.

“It is therefore not possible to provide replacement contracts within the immediate short term and an immediate review and tender exercise needs to take place to try to realign the subsidised and remaining commercial bus networks. 

“Due to the procurement process required to implement these contracts, it is expected that these contracts and services will be in place by October 2023.”

The changes will also affect subsidised contracts held by McGill’s and will come into effect from Monday May 8. In West Lothian 80% of bus services are commercial services.

Since the timetable announcements were first made more than a month ago there has been an outcry over social media across West Lothian, fuelled by misinformation and  “dog-whistle” political statements. 

Several councillors have privately expressed concern and anxiety at the way the debate quickly disintegrated into false rumour and online abuse.

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