Question marks have been raised over a council's "green" credentials after it was revealed that the number of A-level and college students using school transport has plummeted by more than half since controversial charges were introduced.
More than 2,000 students were using free, post-16 transport to get to and from their studies before Northumberland County Council brought in the bus fares to save money in September 2003.
Now, following phased increases in the cost of an annual travel pass - including a massive 53% hike to £360 last year - the number of students using the buses has fallen to 992. Yesterday critics claimed the council's charging policy had forced more than 1,000 teenagers off public transport and into cars to get to schools and college - calling into question the authority's green credentials.
At the same time, they claimed the charges have not resulted in any significant reduction in the council's annual bill for providing post-16 transport for students living more than three miles from their place of study.
Hexham Tory MP Peter Atkinson said: "It is clear that students in Northumberland are still going to high schools sixth forms and colleges but these figures show they are now going in private transport rather than by bus.
"This is certainly not encouraging people to leave their cars at home and minimise problems of the school run. The county council needs to urgently review this policy and encourage students to use school buses by charging them a reasonable amount."
Liberal Democrat councillor for Norham and Islandshires, Dougie Watkin, said: "Over the last three years more than 1,000 students have disappeared from school transport, yet, despite the charges, there has been virtually no saving in the post-16 transport budget.
"I am very surprised at the naivety of councillors and officials in thinking that they could increase the charge so much and not expect there to be a big drop in usage."
Haltwhistle parent Kevin Little, a long-standing critic of the way the county council has handled the post-16 charging controversy, said: "In my view the council has deliberately devised a strategy to price students off the network, and that has been successful.
"This policy has been a disaster and has never brought in the expected income. Driving so many people off buses certainly does nothing for the authority's green credentials."
The county council introduced the charges in 2003 to help trim its £9m-a-year school transport budget, pointing out that it didn't get Government funding for providing post-16 transport.
It claims students affected by the charges can use their Education Maintenance Allowances (EMA) to help pay travel costs.
Yesterday Coun Jim Wright, executive member for children's services, said: "While use of post-16 transport has dropped, the number of students over 16 in full-time education went up by around 2.5% at the start of September 2006."