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Tunbridge Wells council denies claims by former councillor that bus lane fines have been wrongly issued to 29,000 drivers

A council has a ‘moral duty’ to return more than £2 million in fines collected from drivers using a town centre bus lane.

The claim comes from a former Tunbridge Wells councillor who says the local authority breached government regulations when it introduced controversial new rules.

A car and a bus in the bus lane
A car and a bus in the bus lane

Since March 20, motorists who enter the small stretch in Mount Pleasant, in front of the war memorial, have been slapped with a £70 penalty charge after the route was designated for buses only.

The CCTV cameras were introduced on February 20, with fines beginning the following month.

But Matt Bailey, who lost his seat in May, says Tunbridge Wells council has been improperly handing out the penalties.

He said that statutory guidance under the Traffic Management Act 2004 stated: “To promote compliance by helping motorists understand the seriousness of moving traffic contraventions, for a period of six months following the implementation of enforcement of moving traffic contraventions, at each particular camera location, local authorities should issue warning notices only for first-time moving traffic contraventions.”

Mr Bailey, an accountant, himself received a ticket after breaching the bus gate restrictions in July. He said: “I did it deliberately to test whether they would allow an appeal.”

The restriction applies to a comparatively small section of road
The restriction applies to a comparatively small section of road

He appealed on the grounds that as it was his first offence, so he should have received only a warning letter – and successfully had it waived.

Mr Bailey said: “It made me wonder how many other drivers had been improperly fined.”

He used a Freedom of Information request to ask the council how many different vehicles had been issued with at least one penalty charge notice for contravening the bus gate restrictions between the four months from April 1 to July 31 – the answer was 29,005.

Some of those would also have gone on to receive multiple tickets.

Mr Bailey, who was elected as a Conservative councillor for Paddock Wood East in 2019, before turning Independent in January 2022, said: “I believe Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has incorrectly issued more than 29,000 penalties – totalling potentially more than £2 million in fines – to first-time offenders who have been caught out by the traffic restrictions.

Matt Bailey
Matt Bailey

“Many of those will not have appealed and instead have paid up quickly to take advantage of a 50% reduction in the fine.

“Once you have paid, you lose any right to appeal, but I believe the council has a moral obligation to reimburse all those drivers it has incorrectly penalised.”

But Tunbridge Wells council denied it had done anything wrong.

It pointed out that, while enforcement only began in March, the scheme was first put in place in 2020, albeit reinstated this year after being relaxed due to the pandemic.

A spokesman said: “That legislation is not applicable to schemes that were in place prior to 2022, regardless of whether or not enforcement took place.

More than 29,000 drivers have been caught
More than 29,000 drivers have been caught

“The Mount Pleasant scheme was in place prior to 2022.”

Asked why in that case, it had allowed Mr Bailey’s appeal, the council said: “We wouldn’t comment on an individual case, but the council allowed many appeals after enforcement began because we decided to extend the period of leniency.”

Mr Bailey insists the six-month ‘first offence’ period should be observed on each new camera installed and so includes the static cameras put up this year.

In any case, six months have now expired since the cameras first became active, so anyone fined now would be expected to pay up.

The bus lane scheme has been a source of controversy since its introduction, with numerous allegations that it was not clearly marked, leading to drivers inadvertently breaking the rules, as well as complaints from residents in neighbouring roads that they had to make lengthy detours to get to their homes.

There have also been complaints from shopkeepers that they could no longer receive deliveries.

There was even an incident in April where a car ended up crashing through a shop front when the driver lost control. It was reported they appeared to be trying to make a three-point turn to avoid getting caught in the bus lane.

A Fiat 500 ended up inside Blacks store after crashing through the shop-front. Picture Ollie Brock
A Fiat 500 ended up inside Blacks store after crashing through the shop-front. Picture Ollie Brock

More than 750 people signed a petition calling for the new rules to be scrapped.

Greg Clark, the MP for Tunbridge Wells, has asked for the cameras to be turned off and the fines repaid.

He said that so many fines had been issued, it was proof the signage for the prohibited zone was confusing.

He said: “Tunbridge Wells residents are not habitually inclined to break the law.

“I have been contacted by many constituents who have received fines for driving through this confusing bus gateway, while some motorists are forced to perform dangerous U-turns in order to avoid the cameras.

Greg Clark MP
Greg Clark MP

“Even the council now admits that its own signage could be illegal and has referred the matter to the Department for Transport for clarification.

“Therefore, I think it’s only fair that the fines are refunded and that the enforcement in front of the town hall is turned off.”

But Mr Bailey said he was not against the bus-lane scheme itself.

He said: ”It’s a good idea to try to restrict the amount of traffic in the town centre. I am not opposed to the system, but to the way it has been enforced.”

The bus lane restriction, which applies daily between 9am and 6pm, applies only to a few hundred yards of carriageway.

It is intended to reduce air and noise pollution in the town centre and to make the area safer for pedestrians and more attractive to shoppers.

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