Don’t throw our members under the bus

Pat Rafferty looks at the case of ADL to argue that only government action can secure green jobs and help gain a green and just transition

Alexander Dennis Limited (ADL) is a Scottish and UK success story. A global player in the manufacture of bus and coach, with recognised expertise in double-deckers. To put it simply, it leads the field. Prior to Covid-19, the company and its skilled workforce were looking forward to a strong and positive future. The company had record orders on the books. Governments and businesses were investing in green public transportation to reverse the threat of climate change and the workforce was facing the future with confidence.

However, in late August, Alexander Dennis announced that it plans to axe at least 160 jobs at its Falkirk and Larbert bases in Scotland, which together employ 850 workers. As part of its global restructuring plans, the North American parent company, New Flyer Industries (NFI), also confirmed that it will close production at its site in Guildford, Surrey, with the loss of 200 jobs, as well as making swingeing redundancies at its plant in Scarborough. In total, 650 highly-skilled jobs will go over the coming months unless swift intervention is taken by the Scottish and UK Governments.

The severity of these cuts at Alexander Dennis are premature and risk being detrimental to their long-term success. We understand that the company is not facing cash flow problems but currently they have a lack immediate orders and work. The UK Government has been clear and promised funding for 4,000 low emission buses through a £3bn fund. These funds must be made available now.

In Scotland, the government must act on the recommendations of the Just Transition Commission by rapidly rolling-out their promised £500m for green transport. This investment would include a nationwide bus scrappage scheme and the purchase of a fleet of electric buses for COP 26, the UN Climate Change Conference, to be hosted in Glasgow in 2021. We also urgently need to know how quickly can the new Ultra-Low Emission Bus Scheme work in practice and will bus operators such as Lothian Buses be able to access this scheme immediately.

In Scotland, transport has regularly accounted for a large part of emissions. The sector accounts for around 37% of all carbon emissions and has seen a decrease of only 4.9% between 1990 and 2018. Car generated 40% of this total whereas bus and coach account for only 3.2% of all transport emissions. The need for a green mass transport revolution is clear. We need to re-balance the economy through cleaner and greener transport, and more importantly encourage people back on the buses.

We don’t have to look far to see an example of what can be achieved. Fare-free buses operate in the French channel port of Dunkirk, a city of 200,000 people. There, free bus travel has proved an overwhelming success, with a 50% increase in passenger numbers overall and almost 85% on some routes. Bus routes and bus fleets have been extended and include green buses run on natural gas. Whereas in Scotland, according to Transport Scotland, estimates indicate that there were 388m bus journeys made in Scotland in 2017/18 compared with 487m in 2007/08, a drop of nearly 100m over the past decade.

Alexander Dennis’ parent company, NFI, has a responsibility to their skilled workforce. It must show loyalty to its thousands of workers who made ADL a global success. Buses are not just built in the boardroom. NFI’s recent quarter two results for 2020 raise questions over its motivations. It is clear that decisions are being made not just as a result of the current short-term difficulties that Covid 19 has brought to the industry, but as part of a group-wide cost cutting program with cuts of over £15m announced to their manufacturing base. These are cuts that the company planned to make before the Covid pandemic. These cuts are being pushed through despite the company stating that recovery in the industry will happen and that they have a bullish outlook for 2021. UNITE believes this approach is unjustified and will be detrimental to NFI’s long term success. We have a clear message for NFI and for both the Scottish and UK Governments: ‘Don’t throw our members under the bus.’

More generally, the devastating news from Alexander Dennis highlights the precarious state of Scotland’s green manufacturing capacity. We have the ongoing issues at BiFab and CS Wind where next to no orders have been placed with either company for years now. If the Scottish Government seriously wishes to deliver upon the nation’s climate change target of a net zero economy by 2045 then strategic support must be given to businesses based in Scotland in the interests of protecting jobs and the environment. If this support is not forthcoming then meeting this target will be achieved by the extensive importation of wind towers, wind turbines and buses at the expense of creating thousands of highly-skilled jobs across our nation.

Pat Rafferty is the Scottish Secretary of the UNITE union