SCOTLAND’S cities are in the grip of a “public health scandal” after bus operators failed to take advantage of a fund aimed at cleaning up their fleets, environmental campaigners have said.

Just £1.1 million of a £7.89m pot dedicated to helping slash emissions was allocated in the last financial year – sparking concerns not enough is being done to combat pollution.

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The Bus Emissions Abatement Retrofit (BEAR) programme provided cash for 42 buses to be converted to the Euro VI emissions standard in 2017/18, with a further 84 funded last year.

But campaigners said 450 buses could have been cleaned up if all the money was spent, and blamed a “stand-off” between private operators and the Scottish Government over costs.

Gavin Thomson, an air pollution campaigner for Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “This is a public health scandal. Scotland’s cities have illegal, toxic level of air pollution.

“Older diesel buses are a big part of the pollution problem. We need to modernise our bus fleet as soon as possible. In this stand-off between the government and private bus operators, there is only one loser: the people.

“It seems that some bus companies have no problems with profiting from older buses that continue to belch out toxic fumes on our streets. These companies are putting profit before human health."

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He insisted buses are “a key part of the solution for improving air quality and reducing climate pollution”, but added: “Some bus companies clearly fail to grasp the urgency of the pollution problem, seemingly happy to wait another year and use public health as a bargaining chip as they demand more money from the Scottish Government."

The BEAR programme was launched by the Scottish Government to help bus operators shoulder the financial costs associated with fitting older buses with new exhaust systems.

Bus companies can apply for the funding to help reduce harmful pollution and protect public health.

But despite £7.89m of funding being available, only around £1m was awarded to seven operators, including Edinburgh-based Lothian Buses, West Coast Motors, and Stagecoach. The unspent cash will be dispersed to general government spending.

Campaigners said it had been anticipated the money would mostly go towards improving buses in Glasgow, where a Low Emission Zone (LEZ) was introduced at the start of this year.

However, bus operators insist the funding only covers 40 per cent of their upgrade costs.

Andrew Jarvis, managing director for First Bus, Glasgow’s largest operator, said it was “actively engaging with the Scottish Government at the moment to share our concerns over the viability of the scheme, especially given comparative retrofit schemes in other European countries”.

He said: "If we have to pay the difference between the 40%...and 100% of the actual cost, then our only choice is for customers to pay for them as part of the prices they pay for fares. This is a scenario we are reluctant to put into reality.”

He said the firm had applied for funding to retrofit 10 major engine system reworks and was “bitterly disappointed" when it did not secure this.

He added: “We have just completed a £30 million investment programme to introduce 150 brand new Euro VI ultra-low emission vehicles for Greater Glasgow, so we have shown our clear commitment to improving air quality within the towns and cities in which we operate.”

Officials said significant funding had been allocated for the coming financial year to again support the bus sector to prepare for LEZs, which are also due to be rolled out in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee.

They said average funding per bus in Scotland was similar to typical grants offered to English bus operators.

A Transport Scotland spokesman said the cash was "in addition to eight years of the Scottish Green Bus Fund which has been very successful in evolving a greener fleet by supporting the introduction of 475 cleaner buses to Scotland’s towns and cities through £17m of funding".

He said it also spent over £250m a year to support the bus industry.