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Highland bus routes could be brought to a ‘halt’ in Stagecoach ballot

By Calum MacLeod

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If industrial action is agreed, Stagecoach Group bus services in the Highlands and elsewhere could face disruption between October and January.
If industrial action is agreed, Stagecoach Group bus services in the Highlands and elsewhere could face disruption between October and January.

Highland bus services face an autumn of disruption if Stagecoach Group staff vote for industrial action over a pay dispute.

Union Unite is balloting 1500 workers in the transport across Scotland, including those based in Inverness and elsewhere in the Highlands and Islands, and include engineering staff, administrative workers, and cleaners, as well as drivers.

If the ballot for industrial action is successful then major bus routes, remote local communities and events are expected to be severely disrupted.

It would also involve disruption to the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow in November.

The ballots across the various Stagecoach Group companies opened yesterday. If members vote for industrial action, then strikes, and action short of strike, could begin by late October and into late January.

The Stagecoach Group, which operates in practice through various local bus companies, is offering below inflation pay offers to workers across Scotland. The Stagecoach Group has blamed the pay offers on the Covid pandemic.

However, Unite says that Stagecoach’s latest accounts reveal that the company made a profit of £58.4 million, and it has over £875 million of available liquidity.

Unite has demanded Stagecoach meet its fair pay claim of the Retail Price Index inflation figure (3.8 per cent - July) plus one per cent made by Unite.

Dougie Maguire, Unite regional coordinator, said: “Stagecoach’s stance has been nothing short of shocking, and it has infuriated the workforce who have continued to work diligently throughout the Covid pandemic. The Stagecoach Group is extremely profitable. It also directly benefits from millions of pounds of public funds every year through various Scottish Government schemes, not to mention benefiting from the UK Government’s furlough scheme for the last 18 months."

Unite has drawn attention to Stagecoach directly benefiting from several Scottish Government funding schemes. This includes £52 million through the annual public subsidy Bus Service Operators' Grant (BSOG), and £220 million from the National Concessionary Travel Scheme (NCTS).

The Stagecoach Group has also benefited from the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 Support Grant - Restart (CSG-R). The grant provides additional funding to support bus operators. The actual spend in 2020-21 is currently forecast at £120 million. On 8 September 2021, this grant was extended with up to £42 million in additional funding available from October 2021 to March 2022. The funding required for the 2021-22 financial year is forecast at £88.2 million.

In March, Stagecoach announced further plans for 46 new fully electric buses across Scotland, which will be supported with £9 million of Scottish Government funding under the Scottish Ultra-Low Emission Bus Scheme (SULEBS).

Mr Maguire continued: “If Stagecoach do not come to their senses, then many of the nation’s major bus routes will grind to a halt if our members vote for industrial action. Remote local communities and showcase events such as the COP26 climate change conference will be severely disrupted. This will be solely down to the Group’s point blank refusal to make our members a fair pay offer.

"The solution is simple: give our members the pay rise they deserve or face widespread industrial disruption.”

A spokesperson for Stagecoach in Scotland said: "Local people who depend on buses to get to work and access public services, as well as local businesses struggling to recover from the pandemic, will be extremely angry at the threat of completely unnecessary disruption to their bus services. The comments by the union at national level do not reflect the continuing positive discussions that we are having with local Unite representatives as we jointly work towards agreeing pay deals.

"The threat of strike action is even more puzzling as we have already agreed a pay package with Unite covering members in several other parts of Scotland and they remain happy with the deal. In addition, union representatives have recommended their members accept the package that we have offered in the west of Scotland.

"The reality is that Covid-19 has resulted in bus passenger numbers being only 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

"As a result, services being run by all bus operators require support from the Scottish Government, which does not cover pay awards. This means that passenger fares are significantly short of what is needed just to even cover the day-to-day costs of running services, never mind investment in new greener vehicles.

"We are committed to offering good packages for our people that reflect the local economic conditions, the varying costs of running services and the level of passenger journeys. The focus should be on protecting both the jobs of our people and the long-term sustainability of vital public transport services for the local community.

"Separate pay discussions are taking place in different parts of the country and are at different stages. We have put fair offers to Unite in these locations and we very much remain open to continuing discussions with the union to reach agreement."

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