CITY leaders have no power to issue fines through traffic restrictions on Lendal Bridge and Coppergate in York, the Government's traffic adjudicator has ruled.
The adjudicator said neither of the schemes could be "sensibly" described as bus lanes, meaning City of York Council has "no power to issue a penalty charge notice".
The council has said the restrictions both on Lendal Bridge and Coppergate WILL remain in place and drivers should continue to obey them, despite the judgement, as it seeks "independent legal advice".
Coun Dave Merrett, the cabinet member for transport, this evening told The Press: "I am obviously very perturbed at the adjudicator's decision.
"We will clearly need to look at it very carefully and I will need to get legal and officers' advice to make the appropriate response."
A decision on whether the bridge trial should continue is due to be made by the Labour cabinet next month, but the adjudicator's report throws its future into doubt.
>> Read the adjudicator's report in full here: Traffic Ruling.pdf
Adjudicator Stephen Knapp, who visited York in February to assess the schemes, ruled on the single case of a driver fined for using Coppergate last August and stated that because 14 exemptions apply on that street and 21 are in place on Lendal Bridge, the roads could not be classed as a bus lane.
It said: "In my judgement, notwithstanding the designation in the traffic order, neither Coppergate nor Lendal Bridge can sensibly be described as a bus lane, street or gate, but rather the roads are part of a general traffic scheme from which non-exempt vehicles are restricted at certain times and where buses are just one of the excepted categories or classes of vehicle."
"Clearly the council has power to impose those restrictions, but because Schedule 7 of the TMA [Traffic Management Act] has not been fully implemented, civil enforcement does not apply and there is no power to issue a PCN [penalty charge notice]."
The council has made at least £1.3 million in income from fines on Lendal Bridge alone, and has said between £650,000 and £750,000 of this would be ringfenced for transport schemes once the costs of the trial are deducted. More than 53,000 drivers, the majority of them being visitors to the city, were issued with PCNs during the official six-month span of the trial, which ended on February 27.
However, the restrictions have remained in force ahead of a meeting of the cabinet on May 6, when it will decide whether to continue, extend or abandon the scheme. Opposition parties have today said Coun Dave Merrett, cabinet member for transport, should resign or consider his position.
Top traffic lawyer Nick Freeman, known as 'Mr Loophole' for his success in defending celebrity clients, said tonight: "The council had no power to levy these fines and therefore the total penalty charges should be reimbursed to the 53,000 motorists who have been issued with these penalty charge notices.
"I would strongly urge all of the 53,000 motorists to contact City of York Council by letter or email requesting a refund of their money. This ruling could have potentially huge implications for other councils nationally who have similar schemes in operation."
Darren Richardson, the council's director of city and environmental services, said: “City of York Council is seeking independent legal advice in relation to the adjudicator’s decision on this specific appeal.
"We will also be speaking to the Department for Transport, who approved signage used for both schemes. The restrictions will remain in place on Lendal Bridge and Coppergate and we would urge drivers to continue to adhere to these.
“We know that a number of councils nationally will be concerned about this decision and the implications this may have in their area.”
Earlier today, before Coun Merrett's statement, a Labour spokesman said: "A traffic restriction was implemented along Coppergate in the 1960s and there have been many calls for more consistent enforcement.
"The adjudicator’s letter does not suggest Coppergate or Lendal Bridge restrictions should be lifted and council officers have consistently assured councillors the restrictions are legally compliant."
In his ruling, Mr Knapp said he was cancelling the fine imposed on the driver who appealed against the decision, Nigel Rhodes. He said there was an "inherent ambiguity" in the signs advising drivers of the Lendal Bridge restrictions, because the direction sign did not include the times of the closure.
"The impression is therefore that the two restrictions were entirely separate, the first being a closure of Lendal Bridge, without a reference to a bus or general traffic restriction, and the second a prohibition of motor vehicles at all times," said the judgement, saying that while improvements to signage had been carried out, it was "inadequate" before January this year, by which time the trial had been running for four months.
"Even after January, it remains the case that there is potential for a misunderstanding of the advance signs, but I am persuaded that the signs could then be regarded as adequate," said Mr Knapp's report.
"However, it remains the case that the council should not be able to issue PCNs on the basis of the evidence from the roadside cameras because the restriction was not, on any reasonable view, a bus street."
On Coppergate, Mr Knapp said: "Considering the signing at either end of Coppergate as a whole, I find that it was not adequate to reasonably alert the driver to the terms of the restriction.
"In my judgement, the signs are poorly located and the exception plates, particularly the information about the times when the restriction operates, are not reasonably understandable from a vehicle negotiating the busy junctions. The clarity of the times when the restriction is in force is particularly important in circumstances when there was an alteration of the times which had applied for the previous 50 years."
Conservative group leader Coun Chris Steward said: "The release of the adjudication that Lendal Bridge fines are illegal would be thought by anybody new to York to be an April fool.
"For those of us familiar with the farcical saga, it is entirely predictable given the poor signage, misleading 'restricted access' and the lack of information on where Lendal Bridge even is. For the good of York, I reiterate my group's call for Lendal Bridge to be reopened.
"However, even those who support the trial closure realise it has been handled diabolically, and it is time for Coun Merrett to resign from the cabinet."
Liberal Democrat transport spokeswoman Coun Ann Reid said: “This ruling proves what an utter fiasco Labour’s decision to close Lendal Bridge has become.
"It confirms the council should not even be issuing fines using traffic cameras to drivers crossing Lendal Bridge or Coppergate as they have wrongly classified both as bus lanes. If I was somebody who had received a fine, I would be demanding my money back.
“The ruling supports our concerns that the closure signs were not clear and using words like ‘Restricted Access’ is misleading. It also confirms that often the only way for drivers to avoid the closure is to do a dangerous u-turn on a narrow road.
"This has been a botched closure from start to finish. It has made congestion worse, increased overall bus times, and done reputational damage to York. Labour should reopen Lendal Bridge immediately and the cabinet member responsible for the mess should be considering his position."
York Outer MP Julian Sturdy said: “The closure of Lendal Bridge has been a dog’s breakfast from start to finish.
"Not only has it caused horrendous traffic problems throughout the city, it now appears the council have been wrongly demanding payment for fines which should never have been issued in the first place. The council has failed to oversee the trial closure properly, and I think the very least the council leader should do is apologise for trouble he has caused local residents and businesses.
“Hopefully the council will now see sense, waive the outstanding fines that should never have been handed out, and reopen Lendal Bridge as quickly as possible.”
Green group leader Coun Andy D'Agorne said: "Poorly-implemented restrictions do not mean the principle is wrong, but Labour should have got better advice about the appropriate signage to ensure the restrictions are clear and enforceable."
The Labour spokesman added: "Calls for Labour councillors to resign is what we expect from our Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition.
"On the more important matter of the adjudicator's comments and their implications, we will await the legal guidance the council is seeking."
>> Read the adjudicator's report in full here: Traffic Ruling.pdf