EXCLUSIVE: Police's Legal Concerns Over York Lendal Bridge Trial
11:11pm 10th December 2014
As York Council gets ready to refund all Lendal Bridge fines, Minster FM can reveal the legal concerns raised by police and council staff about the controversial trial.
On Thursday night, the city council will meet and is widely expected to pass a motion refunding all 56,000 motorists who were fined during the controversial trial which lasted between August 2013 and April 2014, when a government traffic judge said the use of bus lane style cameras was unlawful.
York Council is currently appealing this judgement with regard to the Coppergate restrictions but has dropped proceedings for Lendal Bridge, but the authority still maintains that both sets of restrictions were lawful.
However, Minster FM can exclusively reveal that legal concerns about the Lendal Bridge trial were raised by council staff and North Yorkshire Police in private. In response to these e-mails, a York Council spokesperson said:
"At the time of the trial there was discussion between officers about the operation of the restrictions as would be expected with the introduction of a new initiative such as this. However, the signing employed does / did comply with national guidance and requirements. The schemes for Lendal Bridge and Coppergate operated with the co-operation of North Yorkshire Police who fully supported the council in implementing them."
Below are some of the main points made in private e-mails between York Council officials and North Yorkshire Police officers obtained by Minster FM under the Freedom of Information Act.
PRE-TRIAL SIGNAGE CONCERNS
Before the trial began on 26th August, a member of staff within the city council raised concerns saying the sixth version of the signs for Lendal Bridge "may not be watertight if challenged in court" and continues:
"Sign C is too far from Duncombe Place to be seen from there and should show Lendal with a No entry roundel, it is still a questionable sign as shown, having got to this point a U turn in Museum Gardens entrance adjacent to the pedestrian crossing is the only options to avoid a fine".
UNLIT SIGNS : "I CAN SEE A FLOODGATE OF CHALLENGES"
On 3rd September 2013, just over a week into the trial, a York Council staff member e-mailed an unknown person to point out that "in about 20 minutes I counted 38 unauthorised vehicles". But then went on to point out a possible legal loophole due to the signs on Lendal Bridge not being lit saying:
"I know at present they are only operating within daylight hours but I am unsure as to whether they are legally enforceable as there are no means to illuminate the signs should overcast conditions reduce lighting levels and switch on the street lamps, and in any event come December they will be operating in the dark.
"Bearing in mind the numbers crossing the bridge it is only a matter of time before some clever solicitor twigs this and challenges the ticket. If successful I can see a floodgate of challenges ensuing."
POLICE RAISE SIGNAGE CONCERNS
In October 2013, just over a month into the trial, police asked the council to look at the signage again saying in an e-mail to a council official:
"Now that the bridge has had a chance to bed in a bit. I have had a look at the signing and I think that it is not obvious to visitors and strangers to the city as to exactly what they are about to do and the consequences of doing it. I know that it has caught out visitors, who have no intention of breaking the law and could reflect badly on the city.
"I think that the issue is the wording of the signs and the road surface treatment (or lack of it). It is not obvious to a driver that 'they-will-get-a-ticket-if-they-drive-over-the-bridge-automatically' and that they do not have to get stopped by somebody waving a book of tickets.
"I think that in the long run the city could be open to criticism for the way that the scheme is set out.
"I have just been contacted by a colleague in Notts who has a member of staff who was here on holiday and got caught an knows that 1,000 motorists a week are getting a ticket. That is not good, as compliance is the ultimate goal, not enforcement per sae.
"Could we review the signage regime and see if it could be adjusted or improved. We know that drivers do not look at signs or even understand them. The writing on the road surface does not stand out and looks like a road direction as opposed to a 'you are about to get a ticket' type warning."
In response the York Council official says:
"I am aware that we have been seeing high levels of contravention in the early days of the scheme and as you've probably noticed we have employed a number of additional temporary signs to mitigate this.
"In terms of the permanent signing we have limited options. As I'm sure you're aware we have to be very careful not to deviate from the proscribed signing to ensure the legality of the scheme. Lendal Bridge is signed in a compliant manner and is similar to other bus lane schemes elsewhere in the country.
"You are right however to suggest we need to review the operation of the scheme (and Coppergate too) once things have settled down. This is a task I have on my 'to do' list.
"Latest figures also suggest contraventions are still dropping as people get used to it. We are also having some success in getting the sat-nav companies to include the closure in their journey planning systems, which will help."
ERROR IN REGULATION "WHOLLY UNACCEPTABLE" TO POLICE
Minster FM can reveal that an error in writing the Traffic Regulation Orders for Lendal Bridge and Coppergate meant that police, fire and ambulance staff who were not dealing with emergencies were at risk of being fined due to an error in the way the rules were written. Our e-mails show one police car was fined but this was revoked by the council.
However, despite conversations before the trial began about access for the emergency services, an error meant that only vehicles directly dealing with emergencies were allowed to cross the bridge, under the terms of the restrictions for Lendal Bridge and Coppergate. This led to the following e-mail from police to York Council on 21st October 2013:
"Despite our numerous conversations and SLA on this, I have [restricted] The police do not just do 'emergencies'. We police, which means that we monitor, patrol and detect. We do not just fly around with the blue lights on."
"This is wholly unacceptable to our operations. The police have more restrictions placed on them than Private Hire vehicles, Taxis, Royal Mail vehicles, Buses, etc.
"To say that I am disappointed is an understatement, particularly as this very issue was discussed in detail and specifically prior to both schemes going in.
"Could this matter be addressed expeditiously, please, as we are unable to effectively police the city centre without the protection of this exemption. This also applies to the other two [emergency] services."
Later that day a York Council official responded to the officer:
"I can confirm that an error was made in the drafting of the Traffic Regulation Orders (TRO) for Coppergate and Lendal Bridge that has resulted in specific exemptions for police vehicles (other than those responding to emergencies) not being provided. In effect this means that it is not specifically permitted for police vehicles not displaying blue lights to pass through the restricted areas.
"However, the use of the restricted areas by police vehicles is governed by the joint City of York Council / North Yorkshire Police Service Level Agreement (SLA) signed in July 2013. We consider that this agreement, being signed by CYC's Director of City Strategy has the effect of giving police vehicles access under exemption 1 of the TRO's....
"... On this basis, police vehicles do have an exemption from the Coppergate and Lendal Bridge restrictions provided that they are being used in accordance with the SLA."
POST-TRIAL REFLECTIONS BY POLICE
After the Traffic Adjudicator ruled that the use of bus lane-style cameras to enforce the Lendal Bridge and Coppergate restrictions was unlawful, York Council asked the police for their views on the Lendal Bridge trial. In an e-mail response an officer said:
"The closures have not caused the NYP issues with regards to on-going operations, however, there are one or two points which would assist the police if they could be addressed:
"1) The legislation was incorrect for the police, fire and ambulance services exemptions. This states that there is an exemption for police, fire and ambulance vehicles used in an 'emergency'. This is incorrect as the police, in particular do not just go to 'emergencies', but the role involves patrolling, monitoring and other uses. We (NYP) are in receipt of a letter of exemption issued by CYC, but we would wish to see the legislation updated to incorporate the wording "any vehicle used for police purposes". This re-wording would negate the need for any 'special' letter of exemption and simplify matters considerable, when answering challenges by members of the public.
"The effectiveness of the scheme, personally speaking, is sound. I do not think that the impact on other traffic routes is as severe as some parties make out. There are mixed responses from other staff, many of whom are less enthusiastic."
"I do think that the legality needs to be addressed (as highlighted). I was concerned at the outset and did suggest that the signage needed to be as robust as could be, to reduce the numbers of drivers inadvertently infringing the closure and ensuring as high a compliance rate as could be reached, thus reducing the likelihood of legal challenge.
"I am concerned at the reputational damage done to York by visitors being handed a ticket and I think that this is a big issue."
If you would like to submit a query or provide more information on this story please get in touch below.
|DAILY NEWS EMAILS: Never miss a story – get all of North Yorkshire's news in your inbox. Sign up for free!|