Almost 30,000 drivers “fined” for using Fishergate bus lanes have been warned not to expect to be paid back – even if a test case rules in their favour.
A top barrister, hearing a sample of five appeals in Preston yesterday, admitted he was powerless to force County Hall to pay back between £850,000 and £1.7m if his judgment comes down on the side of the motorist.
“Even if I was to allow these, it doesn’t reflect on any other appeals,” said Stephen Knapp, the country’s deputy chief adjudicator. “It is not binding on the council.”
The five drivers, including a criminal barrister, who had their cases heard at the tribunal, claimed signs for the controversial bus lanes were inadequate and unfair.
Around 200 further appeals are still pending, with more than 28,000 other motorists hit by the £60 penalties closely watching the outcome.
In just three months more than 28,000 tickets were issued to drivers caught on camera in Fishergate.
In the two weeks grace period before the “fines” were imposed, 5,500 motorists were sent warning letters.
Almost 300 drivers appealed against the £60 penalty, although LCC decided not to contest 97 of them.
There were claims that one motorist clocked up no fewer than seven tickets for driving in the bus lanes. Another, said to be an impoverished student, picked up three - and had them all torn up.
But significantly the number caught by the cameras amounted to only around 10 per cent of the traffic volume (an average of 3,268 vehicles per day using Fishergate) before the restrictions were introduced.
Mr Knapp heard five test case appeals at the Legacy Preston International Hotel - a sixth failed to appear - and then visited the scene of the controversy to inspect signs which the appellants all claimed were confusing and badly positioned.
The barrister told the hearing the cases were just a “sample” of those submitted to the Traffic Penalty Tribunal.
Each of the five drivers was given a chance to give evidence, using photographs and maps of the problem section of Fishergate.
But he told them: “There won’t be any decisions today. It’s not possible. There is too much information which has to be written up in an easily understandable form.
“I will do it as soon as I can. I would say within 10 working days on the outside. But don’t hold me to that.”
Mr Knapp said his remit was only to rule on the five appeals he had heard and whether they should pay their penalty charges.
“If I make any comments, it’s not binding on the council,” he added. “I am not here to enforce their scheme.
“Even if I was to allow these appeals it doesn’t reflect on any others. It may do, but not necessarily.”
To defend the appeals, LCC sent three officers to address the hearing and explain in detail the authority’s official position on the bus lanes and the signs used to highlight it.
After the hearing, Daniel Herbert, highway network manager for Lancashire County Council said: “We have submitted our evidence and we attended the appeal hearings to provide any additional information to the adjudicator. We maintain that these changes were in accordance with legal requirements.”
Pietro de Luca drives all over the UK and has experience of bus lanes in bigger cities than Preston.
But the businessman from Walton Park, Preston told the appeals hearing it was the first time he had come across one like Fishergate, with insufficient warning signs to alert motorists.
“For someone who does 35,000 miles a year and has no points on his licence, I see those signs all over England,” he said. “But for 28,000 people (to get caught) in three months there is something fundamentally wrong.
“Once you turn onto Fishergate from Chapel Street it is so short, you have nano seconds to make your mind up before you are in it.”
Later Pietro added: “To me there are several issues. But one of the main ones is the grace period of just two weeks. That was far too short. It’s just not right.
“I was driving down the Edgware Road in London yesterday and that has one of the longest bus lanes in the capital, in sections. But for each stretch you get at least three warning signs before you get into it.”
David Grogan, who lives in Tockholes near Blackburn, was one of the first to get a penalty notice - his ticket came on November 15, the day after the end of the two-week grace period.
He admitted he had not been in that area of Preston city centre for several years when he drove up Chapel Street and turned into Fishergate.
“There were no signs whatever in Chapel Street. So, as someone who is unfamiliar with the area and that junction, I wasn’t sure which way to turn at the top,” he said.
“Initially I thought it was just pedestrianised. When I got there (to the bus lane) I was a bit confused as to which way I could go. You literally have two seconds to make your mind up.
“I didn’t see the signs at all. I have been driving for 50 years and I have never knowingly driven in a bus lane.”
Criminal barrister John Woodward has worked in Winckley Square for 25 years and has been a frequent user of Fishergate to drive home to the Fylde Coast.
He told adjudicator Stephen Knapp that he was unaware of the new traffic system when he was caught on camera on November 18, two-and-a-half weeks after it was introduced.
“I was utterly oblivious to the scheme.
“This particular day it was an ordinary journey for me, one that I have done countless times.
I simply drove up Chapel Street and turned into Fishergate.
“I’m sorry, but I’m adamant I didn’t see the signs.
“If I had then I would have obeyed the instructions.
“One of the reasons was I was aware it was a shared space and I was concentrating on the pedestrians.
“My eye level was on the pedestrians.
“I also think that with it being a new scheme the grace period could have been more than the two weeks we were afforded.