CITY leaders say legal experts have today told them the controversial Lendal Bridge and Coppergate traffic schemes ARE lawful.
A Government traffic adjudicator's judgement this week said City of York Council had no power to issue fines to tens of thousands of motorists through the schemes, leading the authority to seek independent legal advice. The council has now hinted it may appeal against this judgement, although this has yet to be confirmed.
In a statement released this afternoon, the council's chief executive Kersten England said: “Having received independent legal advice from a leading legal expert in this field, we are confident we are operating both Lendal Bridge and Coppergate schemes within the law.
“We also take assurances from Oxford, who contested with a similar appeal with the Traffic Penalty Tribunal and successfully won.”
The traffic restrictions will remain in place on both Lendal Bridge and Coppergate and the council has urged drivers to obey them, although it has not explicitly said whether fines are still being issued. The content of the legal advice provided to the council has not been published, and the authority will now consider this advice when making decisions on the future of the traffic schemes.
Following Ms England's statement, Coun Dave Merrett - the Labour council's cabinet member for transport, who has faced calls to resign in the wake of Mr Knapp's judgement - said: "We're obviously pleased the legal advice the council has received supports the advice we have previously received in relation to traffic restrictions on Lendal Bridge and in Coppergate."
Traffic adjudicator Stephen Knapp's judgement, which emerged on Tuesday as he upheld an appeal against a Coppergate fine, said neither Lendal Bridge nor Coppergate could "sensibly" be classed as bus lanes, and that while the council could introduce restrictions, it did not have the power to fine motorists. He also criticised warning signs for both schemes and the council's approach to dealing with appeals.
Leading traffic lawyer Nick Freeman, known as Mr Loophole for his success in defending celebrity clients, has since urged drivers who have paid fines since the schemes were introduced to write to the council requesting a refund.
The six-month Lendal Bridge trial ended on February 27 but the restrictions have remained ahead of a meeting of the council's Labour cabinet on May 6, when a decision will be taken on whether to continue, extend or abandon the experiment. More than 53,000 penalty charge notices (PCNs) were issued during the official trial period, with almost 10,000 handed out for breaching the Coppergate rules between the end of September and the end of February.
The penalties from both schemes combined have led to about £1.7 million of income to the council, of which about £700,000 is expected to be ringfenced for roads and transport schemes once costs are deducted.
Council leader James Alexander has ordered an internal review of the schemes, saying the way they have been implemented is not good enough.
Following today's council statement, Conservative group leader Coun Chris Steward said: "The shortness of the statement and, once again, an officer being left to carry the can says it all about this debacle.
"It looks like the council is now set to press ahead and involve York’s taxpayers in further potentially high legal costs. However, they really should realise it is not about some legal technicalities where they may be right or wrong - the handling of Lendal Bridge and Coppergate has been a farce and that is what must be addressed."
Liberal Democrat group leader Keith Aspden said he would ask Ms England to publish a full copy of the legal advice the council received and he also wanted to know how much it had cost. He said: “To continue with a policy which the Government’s traffic adjudicator has ruled is unlawful seems like a gamble, which is why residents need to see the advice the decision is based on.
“The closure has been a shambles from the beginning and Labour need to stop dithering and make a final decision on the future of Lendal Bridge. We think the enforcement cameras should be turned off immediately and Lendal Bridge reopened. Labour need to stop hiding behind council officers and actually say what they are going to do.”
Susie Cawood, head of York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, said: "While the legal implications of the Lendal Bridge trial are important, we should not forget that the closure of this bridge is damaging to business and the Chamber would urge the council to stop this trial immediately.
"Businesses create the wealth in the economy and provide jobs. They have to be allowed to trade, and this transport strategy is hindering economic growth.
In 2009, the Traffic Penalty Tribunal ruled Oxford Council should not be penalising drivers for entering a city-centre "bus lane" because the area had not been signposted as such. The council's High Court appeal was upheld and it was allowed to continue fining drivers £60 for entering an area prohibited to motor vehicles. However, the judge who heard the appeal also conceded some of the signs were "misleading" as they implied the ban applied at all times, rather than between 7.30am and 6.30pm.