CUTS to bus services in the region were unnecessary because the money was available in a Whitehall budget, a report says.
The Department for Transport (DFT) is accused of imposing deep cuts to bus grants, which led to the axeing of scores of routes and steep fare hikes, only to end up with £543m to spare.
Under Government rules, the underspend had to be handed back to the Treasury – a result sharply criticised by the all-party Commons Transport Committee.
Its report said the £543m was “likely to have exceeded the total reduction in annual revenue for the English bus industry following the spending review”.
It added: “Budgetary control at the department has been slack.
Money voted by Parliament for expenditure on transport should be spent on transport – not handed back to the Treasury.”
Louise Ellman, the committee’s Labour chairwoman, said: “This is quite extraordinary. The department got its sums wrong and the cuts to bus services did not need to happen.”
The same committee has previously highlighted how bus services have been hit by:
• A 28 per cent fall in funds to councils, combined with the end of ring-fencing of grants for bus services;
• A 20 per cent cut in the Bus Service Operators’ Grant paid to the bus companies;
• A shake-up of the free travel scheme for pensioners, which means the cash is no longer ringfenced.
MP Phil Wilson, who has been campaigning against cuts to bus services in his constituency of Sedgefield, County Durham, said: “It seems to me if money has been set aside – even after all the cuts – to spend on transport, then the money should be spent on transport.
“We have got people in County Durham having great difficulty getting to work because of the lack of transport. The Chancellor wants to see the economy grow, but that is hardly going to happen if people cannot get transport to go to work.”
Durham County Council withdrew £322,477 in funding from subsidised public transport routes last year, leaving some villages with little, or no, services in the evenings and at weekends.
Darlington Borough Council decided it had to save £100,000 from its bus service subsidy budget, which was expected to affect 18 routes.
A DFT spokesman said the underspend could not have been predicted earlier and said cuts were necessary regardless. He added: “We have protected the concessionary travel scheme for older and disabled people and are providing £20m of extra funding for community transport in rural areas.”