An administrative error caused Lancashire County Council to under-report the income which it generated from fines handed out to motorists over a 12-month period - by more than £2m.
The authority responded to a freedom of information (FOI) request earlier this year about the money that it made from parking penalties and bus lane fines in each of the past two years.
As the Post reported in June, County Hall told the insurance comparison site which made the enquiry that driver indiscretions had added £261,000 to the council’s coffers in 2017.
But just 12 months later, that figure was reported to have rocketed to just over £3m - an apparent increase of 1,050 percent.
It was thought that a possible explanation for the massive leap could have been that the controversial Fishergate bus lane cameras in Preston were switched off for much of 2017 after highways bosses were ordered by a tribunal that the signage warning drivers about them needed to be clearer.
But it has now emerged that the reality was far more straightforward - the original figure was simply wrong.
The true total for 2017 was £2.3m - meaning that the increase over the course of the following year was a still significant, but far less eye-watering, 33 percent.
The Labour opposition group on the authority was made aware of the error when they planned to ask a question on the subject at a meeting of the full council last month.
Transport spokesperson and Preston South West county councillor Gillian Oliver had been intending to accuse County Hall of being “out to extract revenue" from motorists in the city unfairly. However, she is now accusing the council of not holding its hands up to a misleading mistake.
“I find it astounding that this Conservative administration knew that there were erroneous figures in the public domain and yet they haven’t corrected them,” County Cllr Oliver said.
“I think an honest, fair-dealing council would have acted quickly to correct the record.
“This is a controversial area and clarity is important to accountability. We have an important job as the opposition to scrutinise figures and check that they are correct - and we are watching this administration like a hawk.
“The issue is one of competence at a time when people are asking whether they can trust institutions to tell the truth.”
There is no suggestion that the incorrect figure was deliberately released in the FOI response and deputy council leader and Conservative cabinet member for transport for Keith Iddon said that he was “happy to set the record straight”.
But he rejected the opposition group’s criticism of the authority.
“This was an innocent clerical error and I’m very disappointed that Labour are choosing to attack the staff in this way - especially when officers took the trouble to explain the situation to them and when it was Labour who introduced the Fishergate bus lane in the first place.
“But I do believe that these traffic restrictions are important, because they help reduce congestion and air pollution in Preston city centre and keep the traffic flowing.
“Bus lanes are designed as a deterrent and I’d be happy if we didn’t generate any money from them, because that would mean they were doing their job,” County Cllr Iddon added.
Last month, a task group on Preston City Council called for all revenue from bus lane violations in the city to be reinvested within Preston rather than redistributed to other parts of Lancashire.
WHAT IS DRIVING ROAD FINES REVENUE IN LANCASHIRE?
The local democracy reporting service has obtained a breakdown of the figures for each of the calendar years covered in Lancashire County Council’s now corrected FOI response.
In 2018, they show a near equal split between money brought in by parking penalty charge notices - which dropped by almost £265,000 on the previous year - and bus lane fines. Both totalled approximately £1.5m.
But income from bus lane fines leapt by more than £1m between 2017 and 2018, after cameras in Preston city centre were switched back on following their enforced hiatus in the wake of the signage ruling by the traffic appeal tribunal.
A new camera-enforced bus lane in Broughton, close to the bypass, and another over in Clayton-le-Moors, also came into operation in May 2018 - although the latter is thought to have generated minimal income.
The 2017 bus lane fines total of £486,000 came in spite of the fact that the only two operational cameras at the time - focused on Fishergate between Mount Street and Corporation Street and the no right turn restriction at the top of Butler Street in Preston - were in use for just three and four months respectively.
The figure for 2017 also excludes any of the potential £1.3m in fines which were eligible to be repaid following the tribunal ruling.
During 2018, the Fishergate camera was operational for the full year, but Butler Street was still switched on for only four months.
2019 will be the first year that both Preston city centre bus lanes have been monitored on a full-time basis.
The total generated by all four Lancashire bus lanes between January and the end of September this year is £978,000. If that rate continues to the end of the year, it suggests that income from bus lane fines could be set to drop by more than £200,000 across the whole of 2019.
£2,326,330 - income from all motoring fines (2017)
£3,091,303 - income from all motoring fines (2018)
33 percent - increase in income from all motoring fines (2017-2018)
£486,690 - income from bus lane fines (2017)
£1,516,549 - income from bus lane fines (2018)
211 percent - increase in income from bus lane fines (2017-2018)
WHEN IS A BUS LANE NOT A BUS LANE?
All of the bus-related restrictions in Preston which are often described as ‘bus lanes’ are officially known as ‘bus gates’ – points at which all prohibited traffic should stop and change direction rather than simply move to another lane.