Not even a year after the council had to refund thousands of fines the Fishergate scheme is back and promises to be even bigger and better. Brian Ellis reports
Drivers can be excused a feeling of deja vu in Preston city centre today when the bitter bus lane saga returns with a vengeance.
Just eight months after red-faced council bosses had to refund fines to thousands of motorists, the jam-busting Fishergate scheme is back, only bigger and better.
At exactly 11am the all-seeing cameras – which captured around 30,000 errant drivers in just over two months and spewed out tickets worth between £900,000 and £1.8m before they too fell foul of the law – were being switched back on in a blaze of publicity.
This time, say councillors with fingers firmly crossed, there will be no excuse for stray journeys down lanes exclusively reserved for buses and black cabs.
A £60 penalty notice will mean exactly that, unless motorists pay up smartish and get a 50 per cent discount.
There has been a significant increase in the number of drivers ignoring these restrictions since we suspended the camera enforcement, which shows that we need additional measures in place.
“We don’t want anyone to get caught out by these cameras, which is why we’ve introduced a short grace period,” confessed Coun Keith Iddon, the LCC cabinet member for highways and transport.
“We’re happy if we don’t make a penny from them, as it means that people are doing the right thing.”
County Hall officials, who were publicly embarrassed when their celebrated bus lane project was torpedoed by a Traffic Penalty Tribunal as “unfair,” have worked hard on refining it to make sure there is no repeat of the disaster.
Huge new signs have gone up in Fishergate and its feeder roads – Chapel Street, Lune Street, Fox Street and Butler Street – to address the flaws which caused the scheme to fall flat on its face in March.
A large scale advertising and promotion campaign has been waged to cover LCC against claims that motorists have not been adequately warned.
From today drivers caught on camera in the bus lanes between 11am and 6pm (seven days a week including Bank Holidays) will get another grace period where warning letters will drop through their letterboxes instead of fines.
But once that has expired – and LCC is refusing to say just how long it will last – it will be pay up time.
And, unless the council has failed to address the issues raised by the TPT last time round, the chances of another mass appeal would appear slim.
In February County Hall sent three of its top road experts to argue the council’s case before the TPT inspector. In the end they failed because the signs warning drivers about the bus lane were not prominent enough.
As part of the new-look scheme Lune Street will be made two-way on an experim ental basis from next Monday, November 13, with a new access point created onto Ringway.
LCC say it will be evaluated for approximately six months, and could become permanent if it works well.
The changes on Lune Street were originally planned to coincide with the camera enforcement returning on Fishergate. But despite speedy construction of the new link road, officers say it has taken a week longer than they had hoped to complete.
The bus lanes mean a stretch of Fishergate between Mount Street and Corporation Street and in the opposite direction between Butler Street and Corporation Street will be no-go for general traffic for seven hours every day.
Coun Iddon said: “We’ve been carrying out advertising on radio and social media, as well as other promotion to make people more aware of the bus lane.
“There has been a significant increase in the number of drivers ignoring these restrictions since we suspended the camera enforcement, which shows that we need additional measures in place.
“These bus lanes have removed an average of 2,700 vehicles every day from the section between Mount Street and Corporation Street. We know that bus journeys have become more reliable and journey times have reduced.
“However, we also know that people using the shopping centre car park and through Avenham were particularly affected.
“The Lune Street changes should help to resolve some of the issues that we identified during the trial period and improve the overall experience in the city centre for drivers and pedestrians.”
Drivers caught on camera in the Fishergate bus lanes from today will face £60 penalty tickets - reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days.
But County Hall will operate another period of grace where only warning letters - not fine notices - will be sent out.
An LCC spokesman confirmed the ‘softly softly’ approach, but refused to say how long it would last.
Motorists snapped in the bus lanes last year were given a two-week exemption before cash demands started dropping through letterboxes.
At the time the AA slammed the fortnight’s grace as “disgraceful,” saying drivers should have been given at least three months, ideally even six, before fines were imposed.
“A couple of weeks or so is not acceptable - it just becomes a trap,” said a spokesman.
But with impoved signage installed and after a year of publicity since the scheme was last introduced, only a short grace period is predicted before the council starts enforcing the regulations.
What went wrong last time?
Right idea, wrong application.
That seemed to be the official view after the independent Traffic Penalty Tribunal examined the case in a series of apppeal hearings in February.
Senior inspector Stephen Knapp heard five test cases and then walked around Fishergate and its feeder roads before ruling the warning signs for drivers entering the area were “not adequate.”
His decision meant all 30,000 tickets issued to motorists were deemed unfair, purely on the basis of signage.
As a result new, larger ones have been fitted to grab the attention of drivers on Lune Street, Fox Street, Chapel Street and Butler Street, as well as four more on Fishergate itself.
An advertising and promotion campaign has also been carried out to make sure motorists are fully aware of the restrictions, unlike last year when many claimed there had been insufficient publicity before the cameras were switched on.
Councillors have since agreed that, even though the bus lanes scheme failed through insufficient warnings, it is still a valid idea which has improved traffic flow and reduced air pollution.
The bus lane scheme might have its critics - and thousands of them - but experts say it is still a positive addition to the city centre.
When it was in operation last year Preston enjoyed relatively congestion-free Christmas shopping for the first time since the shared space scheme in Fishergate was introduced.
And even though the enforcement cameras have been switched off since early this year, firgures show there have been around 2,700 fewer vehicles using the main shopping street every day.
Bus journeys have become more reliable and journey times have reduced.
And scientists have reported pollutants from the air in and around Fishergate have been reduced by 50 per cent.
On the flip side residents of Avenham say congestion has increased there as drivers take a long detour around the city to avoid the bus lanes.
Council officers hope that the new two-way traffic scheme in Lune Street, which starts next Monday, will divert a large numbers of those vehicles directly onto Ringway, avoiding Avenham.
December 2015: Drivers report waiting up to three hours to exit St George’s and Fishergate Centre car parks as gridlock hits Christmas shopping.
December 2015: Marshals are brought in to man stop/go boards in Fishergate to help ease the congestion.
April 2016: More gridlock over Bank Holiday weekend, with cars waiting two hours to get out of St George’s car park. Police send in officers to help sort things out.
May 2016: Business leaders say traffic delays are having an effect on shops, pubs and restaurants and call for traffic lights to be brought back in city centre.
May 2016: New restrictions announced to help deal with congestion include “no right turn” signs at the top of Butler Street. Lower section of Fishergate to be made bus and delivery vehicles only.
August 2016: Poll shows that as many as 92 per cent of people feel traffic congestion in Preston is a problem - 37 per cent saying it is a “serious” issue.
October 2016: County Hall announces new bus lanes, traffic cameras and £60 fines in a desperate attempt to cure the gridlock.
October 31 2016: The new restrictions come into force between 11am and 6pm, seven days a week. Initially they appear to be completely ignored by drivers using Fishergate. Hundreds continue to use the new bus lane.
November 2016: Drivers caught on camera are given a two-week grace period and sent warning letters. Public outcry once the fines kick in.
November 2016: Preston Bus warn passengers could end up paying extra because of service problems after new congestion is caused by traffic being diverted around centre and onto Ringway.
November 2016: Shocking figures reveal more than 8,000 tickets were issued in the first week to drivers flouting the new bus lane rules.
December 2016: Drivers vent their anger claiming the new restrictions were not advertised sufficiently and road signs were confusing or badly sited.
December 2016: Motoring organisation the AA accuses the county council of setting a “trap” for drivers with the new bus lanes. The company advises motorists to challenge the fines.
December 31, 2016: LCC announces the bus lanes will be withdrawn in the New Year after creating uproar amongst motorists. The scheme would be looked at again for Christmas 2017, says an official.
January 2017: Even before the celebrations have died down the council announces a U-turn, saying the scheme will remain in place.
January 2017: The independent Traffic Penalty Tribunal reveales it will hold an appeal hearing in Preston after being swamped with complaints.
February 2017: Five test case appeals are heard in the city’s Legacy International Hotel in front of top barrister Stephen Knapp.
March 2017: County Hall is ordered to pay back around 30,000 penalty tickets after the bus lane scheme is officially declared unfair. The signs are ruled to be “not adequate.” The AA immediately calls on LCC to pay back all the money collected - estimated at between £900,000 and £1.8m.
March 2017: Council bosses promise to repay all drivers who claim a refund on the grounds of inadequate signage. LCC say the bus lane restrictions will remain in place, although the cameras will not operate. Only around 9,000 apply for refunds, with 21,000 failing to claim.
July 2017: Councillors announce the controversial cameras are to be switched back on in November after improved signs have been put in place warning motorists of the restrictions.
July 2017: The plan to re-introduce the scheme is put on hold while other jam-busting measures are considered.
September: LCC votes to bring the cameras back by November - in time for the Christmas shopping rush - along with two-way traffic in Lune Street.
October 2017: Work begins on building a new access onto Ringway from the bottom of Lune Street to allow two-way traffic to speed up exit from St George’s car park.
November 6: The saga comes full circle when the cameras are switched back on at 11am today.