It is now getting on for two months since the great bus lane debacle was first raised on these pages and finally those at the top of the council’s transport department seem to be ‘getting it’.
The originally line was that anyone who drives in a bus line should expect a fine, end of story. But now realisation has dawned that the challenge is over the woefully inadequate signs which lead motorists, especially those unfamiliar with the city centre, into Priory Queensway before they are confronted with the bus lane and enforcement camera.
But despite seemingly waking up to the fact that most of those complaining are not Top Gear fanatics who believe the car should be king, or just wilful law breakers, council cabinet member for transport Tahir Ali is still sticking to his original line.
Still, when a policy, even one which has led to huge outcry like this, nets you between £2 million and £3 million in just a few weeks, while all your colleagues are struggling with budget cuts, then who can blame him?
And why bring forward a review from January while there are still thousands of Christmas shoppers and party goers coming into the city centre with bulging wallets and pockets to pick?
The sheer numbers attributed to just one camera are staggering – out of 60,000 fines issued by ten cameras in 11 weeks, almost a third were by from just one. That it seems to have hit families visiting the Children’s Hospital makes this a tax on some of the most vulnerable people in the city. Among them is mother-of-eight Marie Buchan who had ten tickets while taking her two-month old daughter Olivia for treatment brochialitis over several days.
Her ward councillor Peter Douglas Osborn raised her plight during council questions and asked for a refund. Coun Ali gave the usual stock answer that he was not aware of the case, why hadn’t Coun Osborn written to him earlier rather than waiting for the public forum to raise it and that if she appeals her circumstances would be considered.
Sadly Coun Ali has obviously buried his head in the sand since Ms Buchan had appeared on the front page of the Birmingham Mail, Radio WM and several national newspapers that morning.
“Not a ringing endorsement of our local media,” suggested Coun Douglas Osborn.
Those campaigning to get their fines reversed have also won the backing of the influential chairwoman of the council’s transport scrutiny committee Coun Victoria Quinn who concluded following a walkabout of the route that the signs are ‘entirely misleading’.
But Coun Ali is sticking to his line: that the signs meet minimum legal standards. That, however, does not answer the claim that they are inadequate.
It also does not answer the criticism that despite a policy designed to keep cars out of the city centre zone, 5,000 plus a week were still driving around the Queensway. The policy is not working.
If Coun Ali took quick action, suspended the camera, and agreed to refund all fines issued by that one camera now he could avoid an embarrassing defeat at a parking tribunal, where the costs would be amplified as well as increased with all those unwitting Christmas shoppers yet to pass through.
What is even more worrying is that the enforcement cameras could be rolled out across the city. Given the track record in this case this does not inspire confidence that it would go smoothly.
Speak to ten different Labour councillors and you will get ten different versions of events at their mammoth six hour budget meeting last weekend. What were protracted heated rows to some are just lively constructive debates to others.
Sir Albert Bore produced a power point presentation of his grand plan to cope with an expected revenue budget cut of £119 million in 2014/15. The rest of the world will get a look next week.
But it does seem that the feared armageddon has been postponed at least until 2015. There will be no wholesale dismantling of services this time out – when the additional cuts are expected to be £154 million.
The service reviews over the last few months have all ranked the cuts into three steps – one for the best scenario, two for the expected scenario, and the third for ‘armageddon’. It appears this year the Labour administration has narrowly avoided stage three.
The Labour leader covered about 50 pages of detail on budget savings, and while there is some hope that the worst has been avoided it does not mean that leisure centres and libraries will not close or cut their opening hours and staffing – some have even already been announced.
A key bone of contention has been the £120 million a year paid to Service Birmingham Capita. Negotiations are on the way to cut £20 million from the central £60 million IT contract, but there is still a demand for a greater saving –especially with all the add-on contracts.
One critic is reported to have compared it to a dinner where the main meal comes at a discount, but you get fleeced on the starter and dessert. The rest of local government is having to undergo a punishing diet, so why shouldn’t the outsource contractors join them they argue.