YORK'S controversial Lendal Bridge traffic ban is to be axed, following a crunch vote by ruling councillors - and the route will reopen fully this weekend.
City of York Council's Labour group met last night to decide the future of the restrictions following a Government traffic expert's judgement last week that the authority did not have the power to impose fines.
A vote was taken in favour of ending the trial and the restrictions will be lifted from Saturday.
Labour last night stood by its policy of introducing the six-month trial last August, claiming it had brought a string of benefits to the city, but a different way of dealing with York's congestion problems now had to be found
However, opposition groups have accused Labour of an "embarrassing U-turn" and only changing their minds because of the potential political fallout. They have also called for council leader James Alexander and the city's transport boss, Coun Dave Merrett, to quit.
Coun Alexander said the "principle" of the Lendal Bridge trial was correct and the council followed the correct legal procedures. He said the council had gathered "valuable information" about traffic flows, bus reliability had improved and passenger numbers had increased.
He said footfall and hotel bookings in the city had also risen while pollution had fallen, but added: "It is, however, clear the trial has been polarising and we need greater consensus among residents and businesses over measures required to tackle congestion in our city.
"We have listened to businesses and the public alike and I am therefore announcing that, after seeing results from the trial and these results being debated among my colleagues, I have asked the council's chief executive to lift the restriction from Saturday through the appropriate procedure."
Coun Alexander said "doing nothing is not an option" on congestion and it needed "tough decisions" to be made. He said an independently-chaired cross-party commission will be formed to "take a long, hard look at the data from this trial and to come up with more consensual suggestions as to how we tackle the great challenge of congestion in this city."
Tweeting his request to the council's chief executive, Kersten England, for the restrictions to be lifted, Coun Alexander wrote: "We've listened."
Coun Merrett, cabinet member for transport - who has been under pressure since traffic adjudicator Stephen Knapp's judgement a week ago - said transport schemes could often be "complex and controversial", and said: "The decision to reopen the restriction in light of the public feedback shows why we were right to undertake a trial rather than seeking to move straight to permanent implementation."
Conservative leader Coun Chris Steward said: "It is better late than never that Labour has finally ended this terrible closure - sadly, it seems it was the threat of Labour councillors losing their seats and discontent in the Labour group, as well as the pressure of a public full council meeting that we called for, which did it, rather than the problems of the closure itself.
"There is now much to resolve on fines to date and the damage the trial has done to York's reputation. Dave Merrett and James Alexander should now finally apologise and resign."
Coun Keith Aspden, who leads the Liberal Democrat group, said Labour had been left with "no choice" but to reopen Lendal Bridge following the adjudicator's report. but said: "Even so, this is an embarrassing U-turn from a Labour cabinet which has insisted all along that the closure is lawful and the restrictions were working.
"It was a botched trial from the start which has made congestion worse and damaged local businesses. It is now time for Coun Merrett and Coun Alexander to take responsibility and resign. We also need urgent answers over whether the council will continue to use taxpayers' money to fund its legal battle and whether it plans to repay the motorists who were fined unlawfully."
Earlier today, Labour sources told The Press the group was split on the issue of the Lendal Bridge scheme and many were fearful of the political damage it was doing to the party, with one councillor saying: "If we continue with this, we will lose the next election". Its members were allowed to vote freely on the issue last night.
Mr Knapp, of the Traffic Penalty Tribunal, said neither Lendal Bridge nor Coppergate, where traffic restrictions have also been introduced and will remain in force, could be “sensibly” classed as bus lanes and this meant penalty charge notices (PCNs) should not have been issued. The council has since sought legal advice from a QC and has said it is confident both schemes are “within the law”, with an appeal likely.
It has continued to record any breaches of the restrictions and urged drivers to obey them, originally saying PCNs could be issued at a later date. However, the authority later confirmed any legal process could take up to three months to resolve, and traffic fines must be issued within 28 days of an offence.
More than 53,000 drivers were fined during the six-month bridge trial, which ended on February 27, although the restrictions remained ahead of a meeting of the Labour cabinet on May 6 which had been due to discuss whether to continue or abandon the trial before Mr Knapp’s judgement emerged. Almost 10,000 PCNs were issued in Coppergate between the end of September and the end of February.