13 Jun 2010

Speech in the Scottish Parliament in the debate about Buses 18 March 2010

How many times over the years have we heard about good ideas, products and innovations that have been developed in Scotland but which have not, unfortunately, come to anything or have been taken on and developed by others elsewhere, who have then benefited from them? It is clear that we are discussing a product that has been designed, developed and delivered in Scotland and which can make a difference not only here but elsewhere. It would be a tragedy if we let that go for whatever reason—as a result of neglect, carelessness or wringing our hands because we think that there is nothing that we can do.

Some of the debate is predicated on the question whether there is a need for investment in buses. Alison McInnes was right to talk about the significant investment that many major bus companies in this country are making. I pay tribute to them. I recently met representatives of Arriva in our area, who explained to me exactly what the company has been doing to develop local bus services. We need to recognise the exceptionally difficult climate in which bus operators are operating. Their margins have been cut, and passenger numbers in some areas are down because of the recession and changed employment patterns. If we are going to ensure the survival of those companies and their investment, it is incumbent on us to do something about that.

Despite the investment by good bus companies, too many buses—certainly across Scotland's central belt—still leave a lot to be desired. We have buses that are not fit for purpose and that, frankly, verge on the dangerous, as well as buses that emit noxious gases at an unacceptably high level. Buses are often not just uncomfortable but unreliable. That is the issue that we should address if, as Charlie Gordon described, we are to have a bus industry and a bus service that are not only fit for purpose but attractive, so that we bring passengers back on to the buses.

Alexander Dennis Ltd produces a cutting-edge product. There is no doubt about the technology and the contribution that it can make. The cabinet secretary was absolutely right to pay tribute not just to the company and its management, but to the workforce for the sacrifices—I use that word advisedly—that it has made. It is a dedicated and skilled workforce that was determined to keep the product and to keep the jobs in the local community. I wonder whether the company would have survived without the sacrifice and commitment of the workforce. I pay tribute to the workers and to their trade union for everything that they have done to give the company an opportunity for the future.

We should ask what we as a Parliament, with our appointed Government ministers, can do to make a difference. John Swinney said that it is a matter for local government. That is correct up to a point, in that it is a matter for local government if that is how we choose to play it. However, it can be a matter for the Parliament and its Government ministers if we and they choose to do something about it.

John Swinney: I hope that Mr Henry will come on to the fact that the Government has made available resources specifically to ensure an uptake of low-carbon buses, through the reconfiguration of the BSOG and through the particular grant that we have made available to Strathclyde partnership for transport.

Hugh Henry: I acknowledge that but, in a sense, it proves my point that the matter is not just one for local government—Government ministers can do something. The question is whether what they have done is sufficient. However, I pay tribute to ministers for what has been done.

One thing that can make a difference is a spend-to-save initiative, which I saw when I was leader of a council. By putting in money up front and encouraging expenditure by various departments, we ensured that they did something more efficiently and effectively and saved money. Some of the measures to which the cabinet secretary referred are in that direction. We can spend to save through Government initiatives that save jobs, reduce running costs and protect our environment.

The question is whether we can unite around not only the motion but the principle of ensuring that Alexander Dennis Ltd and its dedicated workforce have a fighting chance for the future. We should and can do that, for the best.