SECRET emails have revealed months of wrangling and apparent confusion between senior council figures over York’s controversial Lendal Bridge trial.
The exchanges, obtained by The Press, also reveal previously unseen survey findings showing three-quarters of the 1,200 people polled believed the restrictions had harmed York.
The emails show:
• Transport boss Dave Merrett said in October the signs were confusing and should be improved, and complained in January about the time taken to install new signs.
• Despite this, council officials told colleagues they must maintain the signs had been adequate, and that to say otherwise would jeopardise their ability to fight appeals.
• The independent report into the trial will say people now believe York is harder to access than before
• Three-quarters of people surveyed think the trial has damaged York
• One official said “the unfortunate truth” of the trial is that cutting city-centre traffic will do little to reduce air pollution, a key reason given for the restrictions
• Council bosses were unhappy that an amnesty from fines during the first week of the trial became public knowledge
• A “yellow card” warning scheme was considered but rejected due to DVLA advice that turned out to be wrong
• The council was warned last July the scheme was likely to go over-budget, but an official suggested the precise amount of Government funding should be blurred.
In one exchange, deputy council leader Tracey Simpson-Laing told colleagues to “shut down” an email discussion detailing concerns over the trial, in case it had to be later released under freedom of information laws.
The six-month experiment banning private traffic between 10.30am and 5pm every day, officially ends today, but the restrictions will remain pending a long-term decision by the council cabinet.
The emails, released to The Press under the Freedom of Information Act, show using rising bollards to prevent unauthorised traffic accessing the bridge was ruled out because of cost, concerns about their effectiveness and potential delays to buses if they failed.
The council also discussed amending the restrictions to cater for minibuses but Darren Richardson, director of city and environmental services, said that would mean restarting the trial, which would be “a disaster”.
Coun Dave Merrett, cabinet member for transport, also claimed he was given “incorrect advice” from officials over whether warning letters could be sent to drivers who breached the bridge rules.
The “yellow card, red card” approach – advocated by Visit York – was ruled out before the trial began, after the council was advised by the DVLA that its database could not be used to issue warning letters. The DVLA later said these letters could be sent, but by then fines had already started being handed out.
Coun Merrett said it was “unhelpful” that he only discovered this in a general communications update and asked: “Did we actually robustly test the legal position with them [the DVLA] in the first place”, querying whether a warning scheme could be brought in despite the possibility for “further embarrassment and confusion”.
On January 23, Coun Merrett emailed officials about “enhanced” signs and told them they needed to “get these signs in ASAP” in order to “avoid being seen to be undertaking wasteful expenditure” or face accusations of being “too late”.
About 30 per cent of the scheme’s funding has come from the Government’s Better Bus Area Fund, believed to be about £50,000. When budget concerns were raised last July, Ruth Stephenson, the council’s head of sustainable transport service, emailed colleagues saying: “I would prefer not to specifically mention the amount again and say the trial is being supported by Government funding.”
Revealing email messages
Revelations found in the secret emails included:
• Council official Simon Parrett told Coun Merrett in December: “On the air quality side, it is an unfortunate truth that even removing quite large volumes of traffic would have little impact on overall air quality.”
• Council leader James Alexander, in an email exchange with Darren Richardson, said it was “disappointing” that a first-week fines amnesty had been made public as it could “undermine the integrity of the trial”.
• Officials admitted feedback from a survey on the trial, collated in December and showing 75 per cent believed it had “a negative or very negative impact” on York, was “very disappointing”, and also suggested expected improvements to bus times were not being seen. They claimed views may have been swayed by respondents being fined or through media coverage and anti-trial campaigns.
• Last September, Coun Merrett said one of the signs notifying drivers of the trial, on Station Rise, “feels very confusing”. He said he had been “disappointed at the initial high level” of fines.
• During the trial’s early stages, transport official Richard Wood told city leaders more AA signs could be installed “but the challenge of getting them read remains”. He said many people were following sat nav systems which directed them over the bridge “as expected”.
• Coun Alexander suggested Coun Merrett should not do a TV interview about the scheme and another cabinet member should step in, saying: “I would try and share it out – we can’t have the scheme look attached to myself or Dave personally”.
• Responding to criticism from Coun Merrett about his party’s stance on the trial, then-Conservative leader Coun Ian Gillies said in November that he had not criticised it when it started but he had come to believe York’s reputation was being harmed. Coun Gillies said he accepted “we cannot stand still” and “perhaps the eventual solution will be more drastic than closing just one bridge”.
Trial ‘not to generate revenue’
A City of York Council spokeswoman said: “Officers need to be able to correspond with each other; using their collective experience to debate decisions and provide advice on schemes like Lendal Bridge, prior to final decisions being made.
“Throughout the trial the council has continued to promote that York is open for business, but some media coverage has not helped this by portraying York’s accessibility in a negative light.
“However, in reality the latest half-term footfall figures are the highest on record demonstrating that York has been both accessible and well utilised during this period.
"York is a fantastic city with much to offer and the aim of the Lendal Bridge six-month trial was not to generate revenue, but to reduce traffic going over the bridge and through the city centre, as part of a long-term vision to create an even more attractive and thriving city centre for everyone.”
She said the council had deliberated about publicising the amnesty, over fear of causing confusion, and had repeatedly said the signs met Department for Transport standards.
‘Internal debate can be taken out of context’
COUNCILLOR Tracey Simpson-Laing said last night: “My comments relate to the fact that internal debate can be taken out of context when simply reading emails – as has this – as emails are not the best place for debate.
“But in fact what this shows is a healthy debate within the Labour Group, proving that we are completely undecided as a group until the full facts have been presented, despite what some might think and this is always what I have said”.