• Transport chief defiant amid calls to resign.
  • He's invaluable, says council leader.
  • Outer Ring Road "must be made dual carriageway".
  • York MP says all bridge fines should be repaid.
  • Bus operator "very disappointed" scheme is being ditched.
  • Shuttle bus idea suggested.
  • Coppergate traffic rules will stay.

YORK'S under-fire transport boss has said he is not going to quit in the wake of the Lendal Bridge scheme being axed.

Coun Dave Merrett, City of York Council's cabinet member for transport, has faced calls for his resignation since Government traffic adjudicator Stephen Knapp said last week that the authority had no power to fine tens of thousands of drivers for breaching traffic restrictions on the bridge and Coppergate.

The council's ruling Labour group last night voted to ditch the controversial ban and the bridge will be fully reopened on Saturday. Coun Merrett said today: “The principle was right to have a trial closure of Lendal Bridge to test out whether we could improve bus patronage and reliability, so as to make the bus a credible, reliable alternative for people travelling into and out of the city. 

"The evidence strongly suggests that this succeeded, but it’s clear that the trial closure has become a polarising issue, and we therefore need to readdress the issue of trying to build a public consensus on the big issues around traffic congestion and how we tackle it going forward.

“Legal advice shows that we are in a sound position. I think how we meet future transport challenges is the most important issue, and I have not heard a single positive alternative suggestion from the opposition about how we do that other than looking at bold measures like the Lendal Bridge trial. I look forward to continuing to play a full part in the work of this administration with the Leader's continuing support”.

Council leader James Alexander said: “This isn’t the first and won’t be the last time an opposition councillor calls for a resignation, it’s what opposition councillors do. 

“Dave Merrett has instigated a trial, supported by the Labour group, which was worthwhile but which we are not taking forward and making permanent, something we said from the outset could be one possible outcome.  What is important now is that we build consensus going forward on how we tackle the issue of traffic congestion which is not going away.

“Dave Merrett has an immense amount of knowledge and experience and these qualities are invaluable to the council”.

York's Conservative group has launched an online petition calling for Coun Merrett to resign, with its leader Coun Chris Steward saying: "The council's employees are not to blame for this trial, it is the Labour councillors and it is time they took responsibility.

"The welcome reopening of Lendal Bridge on Saturday will not mark the end of the saga. There is so much more to sort out for the good of York."

The York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce - one of the fiercest critics of the bridge scheme - has said the only way of solving York's congestion problems is to find the money to finally make the Outer Ring Road dual carriageway.

However, Green group leader Coun Andy D'Agorne said he would now push the case for a "serious trial" of a free shuttle bus service, similar to those operating in Sheffield and Bradford, between York Station, York Hospital and York St John University, the Barbican centre and Piccadilly. He said "bad publicity" had been the bridge scheme's downfall.

Susie Cawood, head of the Chamber, said today: "The Chamber is delighted that the council has listened to public opinion and is reopening Lendal Bridge to cars.

"Our members have been very vociferous in their condemnation of this trial and will be relieved they will not be hindered by idealistic transport strategies and can get on with doing business and creating wealth in the economy as well as providing jobs.

"We recognise the need for the council to address York's increasing congestion challenges in line with the city's growth and look forward to having some input into the commission the council is setting up to review these challenges. Indeed, if the council is serious about reducing city-centre congestion, the money needs to finally be found and the Outer Ring Road made into a dual carriageway.

"York has a great deal to be positive about. Its economy is the most resilient in the UK and there will be a unique opportunity to advertise the region for both investment and tourism when images of York and North Yorkshire are broadcast around the world in July during the Tour de France. It is now time to put this trial behind us and concentrate on the future development, growth and success of York and the wider region."

Julian Sturdy, Conservative MP for York Outer, welcomed the decision to abandon the controversial trial, but said motorists who had paid penalty charge notices should be given their money back by the Labour-led authority.

York Outer MP Julian Sturdy said: "I’m delighted to see the council has u-turned on this disastrous policy. This is a major victory for common sense and I’m looking forward to easier access through the city centre and less congestion in other areas of York as a result.

“It remains to be seen what will happen to the several million pounds worth of disputed fines. I’m aware that the council is appealing the adjudicator’s judgement, but I fear this will only serve to prolong the severe embarrassment they’re already experiencing.

"I call on the council to have the humility to repay the fines and bring about an end to this fiasco."

Mr Sturdy praised Coun Steward and his colleagues for their "decisive action" in opposing the policy and holding the council to account. 

The council has confirmed the restrictions will be lifted on April 12, but nobody crossing the bridge since the end of March will be fined.

Darren Richardson, the council's director of city and environmental services, said today: “We remain confident that any PCN’s issued are valid and this follows independent legal advice confirming the trial was operating within the law.

"Restrictions will be lifted on Lendal Bridge on Saturday, April 12. Drivers are urged to continue to adhere to these restrictions until this date. Restrictions on Coppergate are permanent and have been in place since the 1960s and will continue to remain in place.

“We have said from the outset that the purpose of the Lendal Bridge trial is 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 a more attractive and thriving city centre for us all.

“Doing nothing for York is not an option. A report will be taken to May 6 Cabinet outlining proposals to introduce a new commission to consider what should be done to tackle traffic congestion in York long-term.

“As it stands, it is also important to stress at this point that any income generated from PCNs and will be invested back into the city’s transport and highways infrastructure.”

The cross-party commission, which Labour said would take "a long, hard look" at the data from the bridge trial, will be independently chaired and tasked with finding "more consensual suggestions" on how to tackle congestion.

Coun D'Agorne said the trial had been undermined by negative publicity, but opposition parties must now help the city come up with "viable alternatives" if congestion is to be addressed and pollution levels reduced.

On the shuttle bus idea, he said: "Costings have been done and this could be funded at modest cost from the profits from city-centre car parks and, perhaps, with support from retailers and entertainment venues in the city."

He said he had asked Mr Richardson to include the idea in any bid for funding to build a new bus interchange near York Station.

Frank Wood, who chairs York Retail Forum, said the organisation was "delighted" the bridge was being reopened, saying: "We make no apology for pursuing a policy for the reopening of the bridge from day one, as it was seen to negatively effect businesses within the city.

"However, we are very happy the council has listened to the views expressed by the Forum, other business organisations, visitors and residents and have acted upon that information. We now need to move forward and promote our city, to make us once again a leading must-visit destination city welcoming to all, and the Forum will work with the council to make sure our future is secured."

Kate McMullen, head of Visit York - which has said a yellow-card system giving drivers a warning before being fined should have been looked at when the trial was introduced - said lifting the restrictions is "the right decision at this time". She said: "However, now this has been decided, we must continue to work together in the city to plan for the future, tackling congestion issues and increasing the use of public transport.

"We are committed to working together to find solutions for the future."

Will Pearson, bus operator First's business manager in York, said: "We're very disappointed with the lifting of the traffic restrictions on Lendal Bridge.

"The trial helped to give thousands of our customers shopping, working in and visiting York more reliable bus services. We know reliability is key to attracting more people onto public transport and we'll continue to work closely with the council to deliver improvements for our customers across the York network."

Coun Alexander said: "It's great to see that businesses across the city are supporting the decision to create a cross-party and independently-chaired commission.

"We all share the same vision - to ensure York continues to prosper - and we hope that, by working together, it will help to find long-term solutions."

>> Last night's story - Lendal Bridge trial abandoned