Aberdeen council chiefs are moving forward with plans that could see them take over the First Bus fleet, the Evening Express can reveal today.
City leaders are calling for talks over a potential buyout of the transport firm after the company’s share price dropped sharly as a result of Covid-19.
First Aberdeen was put up for sale in 2019 but was taken off the market earlier this year.
But Aberdeen City Council remains keen to bring public transport under the control of the local authority.
The council is also open to a joint venture with other local authorities, such as Glasgow City Council, should First be willing to sell its fleets in other parts of the country.
It is also keen to explore a co-operative buyout with existing First employees.
Council co-leader Jenny Laing said: “We have asked the council’s resources director to contact First Aberdeen to ascertain if they still intend to sell their bus fleet.
“The administration has made it clear to the public that Aberdeen City Council is keen to operate a municipal bus company.”
Ms Laing added: “We would be amenable to exploring different options around First Bus operations should First Aberdeen become a willing seller.
“This could be done in a number of ways, including looking at a co-operative model with existing employees or a joint venture with other local authorities, such as Glasgow, who are currently served by First if the company is looking to sell their bus fleet in other parts of the country.
“The time is right for Aberdeen to operate its own municipal bus company and I am positive the public would embrace being in control of their own bus company.”
In June 2019 an emergency motion seeking a report from officers on how the authority would put in a bid for First Aberdeen gained unanimous support across the chamber.
The SNP group leader at the time, Stephen Flynn, said: “We know that First are selling so it only makes sense that we investigate whether we are in a position to buy.”
However, those council plans were shelved earlier this year when First Group announced it was abandoning plans to sell its UK operations.
Since then, the transport giant has revealed its annual losses have risen from £98 million to just under £300m.
The Aberdeen-based company blamed Covid-19 restrictions, as well as charges relating to a North American self-insurance provision, Greyhound impairment charges and restructuring and reorganisations costs.
A spokesman for First Group said: “FirstGroup has again confirmed that once the sales of the North American businesses complete, First Bus, alongside First Rail, will form the repositioned Group. The bus division grew over the last year and we continue to prioritise investment in local markets where our partners support our ambitions to deliver thriving and sustainable bus services.
“We are in the midst of a global pandemic, which has seen the transport sector decimated by a dramatic fall in passengers across all modes of travel, and there is continued uncertainty to overcome in the sector.
“FirstGroup as a publicly listed company has an obligation to set out all factors that represent material uncertainties in terms of financial reporting to the markets.
“FirstGroup has also recently announced plans for First Bus to become a leader in the transition to a low-carbon future for public transport. It is committing to operate a zero-emission bus fleet by 2035 and announced that it will not purchase any new diesel buses after December 2022.
“Local authorities and bus operators working together can positively impact congestion and air quality, provide more services, deliver patronage growth and better support local economies. We are convinced that the quickest, cheapest and best way to improve bus services is through positive and proactive partnerships.
“The private sector is much better placed to access the finance to deliver the fleet of low emission and high-quality buses that customers now demand whilst being able to be fully responsive and agile to the changing market as people’s travel habits change.
“It is heartening to see the growing recognition across the political spectrum and at all levels of government, that buses have a huge role to play in achieving social and environmental ambitions and improving local economies.
“We welcome the opportunity to work with the Scottish Government and local stakeholders on making the best of the Programme for Government’s commitment of £500m investment in the bus sector infrastructure as we move out of the global pandemic and embrace the new normal.
“In the meantime, we are delivering on plans that will improve operational performance in First Bus by investing in enhancements such as contactless, flexible payment system Tap and Cap, a much improved First Bus app and we look forward to partnering with Aberdeen City Council to deliver 15 new zero emission double decker Hydrogen buses for the city later this year.”