The statement put out by Birmingham City Council in the wake of a highly-critical traffic parking tribunal verdict on its City Centre bus lane enforcement was one of the worst pieces of PR whitewash ever seen from this local authority.
An independent expert on traffic enforcement had decided that the bus lane enforcement locations responsible for issuing the vast majority of £60 fines since September had ‘inadequate’ warning signs.
And in the case of the most controversial, Priory Queensway southbound to Old Square, are confusing and misleading. He said that 30,000 fines issued here ‘should not be enforced’.
There were similar issues with St Martin’s Queensway where another 30,000 fines have been issued in the face of ‘ambiguous’ signage.
The adjudicator also said that although not legally required it is good practice to put up camera enforcement warning signs and good practice to issue warning tickets for a first offence and, when it can take up to two weeks for a fine to arrive by post, not to enforce multiple tickets issued in the intervening period.
All of these examples of best practice were not carried out by Birmingham City Council.
But from the official statement you would be forgiven for thinking that the council had got it right.
“Our position has always been that the bus lane signage is compliant and sufficiently visible to motorists, a view now confirmed by the independent adjudicator at a majority of the locations that they have considered,” read the statement.
The statement then goes on to laud the use of bus-only lanes and enforcement to keep the city centre’s public transport system moving.
It was only too delighted that the adjudicator decided that this was not a money making exercise, but we all know that with a £4 million running costs for the scheme to cover this was never likely to make much money.
There is no contrition that tens of thousands of motorists have unwittingly driven into bus lanes and been fined because the warning signs are unclear, confusing, ambiguous or even barely noticeable when you are driving around an unfamiliar city centre. Avoiding them at a late stage involved a dangerous u-turn.
The statement was the latest failure from the the transport department and its Labour cabinet member Tahir Ali, to recognise that it had got this wrong.
Having been alerted to the problems in mid-October, when the first 10,000 or so fines had been issued, the sensible thing to do would have been to suspend the enforcement, carry out a review and check with motorists affected.
These are motorists like the vocal Ben Cheney of Sutton Coldfield, Marie Buchan of Weoley Castle, Sam Hall of Acocks Green and Laura Bagshaw of Castle Bromwich who all fell foul of the lanes while taking youngsters to the Children’s Hospital. There are also the 300 police car drivers fined and charged through their pay packets – are the council saying they all ignored the laws of the road?
Recognition at this stage that the signs were confusing would have not only saved tens of thousands of people unfair fines, but also kept them out of the bus lanes and improved journey times for those frequently stuck on buses around Old Square.
Instead Coun Ali, when challenged in the council chamber on this, sought to demonise those caught as lawbreakers who deserve to be fined. He told those angered to appeal – but many were put off by the ridiculous double or nothing risk on appeals – a £30 discounted fine will become a £60 one if the appeal is lost, so many pay up.
Drivers of company and lease cars found they had no right of appeal as the fine was paid for them and the bill passed on, often with an ‘administration’ surcharge.
And even when the backbench transport scrutiny committee decided the fines were ‘unfair’, that signs needed to be improved, highlighted cases of vulnerable constituents with multiple fines totalling hundreds of pounds, and said the affair had resulted in a serious loss of public confidence in the council, their comments were ignored.
Belatedly some changes have been made, the Children’s Hospital and law courts now send out warnings to people with appointment letters and some new signs have this week gone up to make things a little clearer – hopefully now cars will avoid the bus only zone.
I now understand that following some heated exchanges at a Labour group meeting this week in which Coun Ali was told to do the decent thing, that some sort of concession is going to be announced.
Now with plans to introduce bus lane enforcement cameras on arterial routes throughout the city it is important for every motorist that the lessons of this debacle have been learned and that only those drivers who deliberately use bus lanes get fined.
Council House staff who missed the tearful send off to resigning chief executive Stephen Hughes were literally offered a crumb of comfort a couple of days later. An email offering all a slice of his leaving cake was whisked around the building – as long as they supplied their own plate and fork.
One official said: “Amid all the budget cuts and job losses, it was nice to be told ‘let them eat cake’.”