Green bus scheme condemned by Labour as ‘humiliating failure’

By Lewis McKenzie, Political Reporter, Press Association Scotland
Figures show just over £1 million of funding for retrofitting buses has been allocated from a budget of more than £7 million.

A Government scheme aimed at retrofitting buses to reduce emissions has been described as a “humiliating failure” by a Scottish Labour MSP.

The Bus Emissions Abatement Retrofit (BEAR) programme was launched by the Scottish Government to help support bus operators with the financial costs associated with installing retrofit technology to help improve air quality in towns and cities.

In 2017/18, the programme awarded funding for 42 buses to be converted to the Euro VI emissions standard to help reduce pollution levels.

Additional funding of £7.89 million was allocated to the delivery of the second phase of BEAR, however figures show just over £1 million has so far been awarded to seven operators – covering the retrofit of 84 vehicles in total.

Scottish Labour transport spokesman Colin Smyth said: “This scheme has been a humiliating failure for the SNP and ministers need to ask the tough questions as to why.

“We are facing a climate emergency and upgrading to clean, green public transport needs to be a priority. Instead, big bus companies have literally turned down Government grants to do so.

“This strengthens the case for more public ownership in our bus network. Municipally owned, locally run bus companies would be more accountable than private firms that all too often seem to put filling their pockets ahead of saving the planet.”

A spokesman for Transport Scotland said funding awarded to operators added to additional measures already taken towards improving air quality in towns and cities, as well as improving transport provision.

The spokesman said: “We have offered grants totalling £1,062,512 to seven operators which will see 84 buses being retrofitted in the second phase this year, joining the 42 buses supported in the first phase.

“This is in addition to eight years of the Scottish Green Bus Fund which has been very successful in evolving a greener fleet by supporting the introduction of 475 cleaner buses to Scotland’s towns and cities through £17 million of funding.

“We also spend over £250 million a year to support our vital bus industry to work with operators to keep fares at affordable levels and provide free bus travel to older and disabled passengers.

“The Scottish Government committed to introducing low-emission zones into Scotland’s four biggest cities between 2018 and 2020.

“Glasgow is the first city to introduce a zone, working with the bus industry to respond to the air quality challenges within their city centre.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland air pollution campaigner Gavin Thomson criticised bus companies who had failed to take up the available funding.

Mr Thomson said: “This is a public health scandal. Scotland’s cities have illegal, toxic levels of air pollution. Older diesel buses are a big part of the pollution problem.

“We need to modernise our bus fleet as soon as possible. In this stand-off between the Government and private bus operators, there is only one loser: the people.

“It seems that some bus companies have no problems with profiting from older buses that continue to belch out toxic fumes on our streets. These companies are putting profit before human health.

“Millions could have been spent to improve air quality and reduce the toll it is taking on our health. But the money remains unspent, and entirely avoidable pollution continues to pose a danger to the health of young people, the elderly, and those who are already suffering illness.

“Some bus companies clearly fail to grasp the urgency of the pollution problem, seemingly happy to wait another year and use public health as a bargaining chip as they demand more money from the Scottish Government.

“We need big ideas and ambition to expand our bus network, but to start with, we need our bus operators to put people’s lives before their own profits.”

Andrew Jarvis, managing director for First Bus in Scotland, said that First Bus had been “bitterly disappointed” after their application to secure funding for the retrofit of 10 major engine system reworks at Stage 2 of BEAR was unsuccessful.

However Mr Jarvis explained that First Bus remains commited to improving air quality in towns and cities in which it operates.

Mr Jarvis said:  “First Glasgow have been actively engaging with the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland for the best part of 18 months now and throughout we have shared our concerns over the viability of the scheme especially given comparative retrofit schemes in other European Countries.

“We have engaged with Transport Scotland throughout regarding the impacts and are in discussions both directly and via the Confederation of Passenger Transport to discuss how the BEAR scheme could potentially be designed.

“We have just completed a £30 million investment programme to introduce 150 brand new euro VI ultra-low emission vehicles for Greater Glasgow, so we have shown our clear commitment to improving air quality within the towns and cities in which we operate.

“We are fully committed to working with Transport Scotland and the industry via CPT to reach a more realistic level of funding for retrofitting.”