Paul McNamee: Big thinking could be a bus ticket to better lives

Governments tend to overpromise and underdeliver. How about they remedy that?

Last week something interesting was decided in Scotland. Given you were probably (correctly) washing your hands at the time, you might not have heard.

In the annual budget statement, the Scottish Government declared they would make bus travel across Scotland free for everybody 18 and under. They’re aiming to begin in January. It’s a bold move, though it’s already being decried as gesture politics by opposition parties. Some £15m has been set aside by the SNP administration to get things going. But the Greens, who came up with the plan and pushed for it as a price of helping the SNP get their budget through, calculate it will cost £80m a year. There is a gap to bridge. And there are significant other growing funding issues around council services.

Still, it’s a smart move. Aside from the environmental benefit of public transport against private, there is an issue of money. It’s long been acknowledged that transport costs are barriers to employment and social mobility for many of society’s poorest, and youngest. This cannot make things worse.

Why not do something huge to help those on the margins?

There are schemes in pockets across Britain that allow for reduced, and in some cases free, fares. But these are not joined up. And because of Thatcherite deregulation of bus services in the late Eighties, profits have come before people. There are dozens of independent operators in Britain. Facile comments about allowing the market to balance itself don’t fly. Many of the routes remain viable because of council funding assistance. And as that has been cut, some less profitable – though essential – bus services have been axed.

As part of his catch-all pledge to “level-up” Britain, Boris Johnson promised £5bn on bus and cycle routes outside of London over the next five years. How this shakes down is unclear. There’s no guarantee that some of it won’t be used to look at a fantasy bridge/tunnel between Scotland and Ireland. Perhaps this week’s Westminster Budget will go from soundbite to detail.

Johnson, it is said, loves big projects. He’s prepared to go hard with £100bn to make HS2 a reality.

Why not do something huge to help those on the margins? A national free transport pledge for those on low incomes would make a massive positive boost. It would allow people to travel for necessary work without fears over how they could afford it. People could accept jobs they previously may have refused. It’ll help them move on and up.

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Governments frequently talk big and act small. Then, they get caught in a cycle of re-election, delivering policies they believe will play well in certain areas of the press, rather than policies that actually will make a demonstrable difference in lives.

Free buses are not the panacea. But a genuine change in thinking, a genuine desire to move beyond short-termism, will be.

Clever winning and smart leading are very different things. Johnson, time to get on the bus, daddy-o.