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Greg Clark MP calls for 25,000 fixed penalty notices arising from Tunbridge Wells bus lane to be cancelled

An MP has called for more than 25,000 fines given to drivers to be cancelled after questions were raised about the legitimacy of the signage.

The controversial “public realm” project introduced by Tunbridge Wells council, which has banned all traffic other than buses and taxis from a small section of Mount Pleasant Road, has been met with nothing but criticism since it went “live” at the start of April.

The bus lane in Mount Pleasant Road
The bus lane in Mount Pleasant Road

Figures given to a meeting of the Joint Transport Board earlier this month revealed an astonishing 25,273 fines had been issued up until July 3.

In the first five weeks of the scheme’s operation alone, 12,159 penalty charge notices (PCNs) had been issued, raising £857,000 for the borough. The standard fine is £70 but this is reduced if paid within two weeks.

The borough’s parking manager, John Strachan, said initially 1,000 offences had been recorded every day but that had now dropped as the scheme bedded in “to hover just above 200 a day.”

Greg Clark (Con), the MP for Tunbridge Wells, said he had received many complaints from angry motorists and he called on the council to switch off the traffic enforcement cameras immediately and to refund all the fines levied so far.

From the start, many motorists have described the traffic signs that warn drivers away from the prohibited zone as “confusing.”

Many have found themselves fined entirely unwittingly, without even realising that they had breached the regulations.

Greg Clark MP
Greg Clark MP

Mr Clark said: “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.

“More than £200,000 worth of fines in a single month only goes to show how confusing the scheme and signage is.

“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.

“Traffic cameras should not be used as an income generator and the people of Tunbridge Wells are not inclined to habitually break the law.”

The restricted area is comparatively small
The restricted area is comparatively small

The borough only began issuing penalties from the start of April, but prior to that the signage had been in place a long while. Between February 5 and March 31, the council just gave out warning letters to offenders – 18,000 were issued in the five-week period.

One of the most recent drivers to receive a fine was John Percy.

He said: “I was driving through Tunbridge Wells for the first time ever on Sunday. I was going to meet my daughter in Sussex while staying in Kent on holiday with my wife.

“I remember during the journey, I mentioned to my wife that I thought we were driving near to a bus lane.

“However she drew my attention to the road markings, which only showed BUS STOP, but for more than the usual length of the road.

The idea is to make life easier for pedestrians and to improve air quality
The idea is to make life easier for pedestrians and to improve air quality

“It definitely didn’t say BUS LANE, which we always look out for. I got a ticket, which I intend to appeal on the basis of the lack of notification of the restrictions.

“It seems to me that the council has set drivers up to be confused and therefore caught out, so as to make them pay up for a completely innocent mistake.”

Some of the initial signage has been taped over, after it was realised the instructions were wrong. It is understood that the council is now consulting with the Department for Transport over the legality of the signage.

A sign displaying the Except For Access wording
A sign displaying the Except For Access wording

Part of the problem is the devolution of responsibility between Tunbridge Wells council and the highways authority, Kent County Council.

The idea for the bus lane was the borough council’s as part of a wider £1.3 million project to improve the look of the town centre and to encourage visitors.

The borough is also responsible for collecting the penalty fines. But KCC has announced its intention to exercise new powers recently granted by the government to enforce moving traffic offences and plans to take over the enforcement in Tunbridge Wells next April.

As the highways authority, KCC is also responsible for the traffic scheme, and the borough is unable to unilaterally revise the scheme, which bans cars from a 100m section of the road in front of the war memorial between 9am and 6pm.

A secondary aspect of the scheme is the chaos it has caused for residents and businesses in the neighbouring streets, particularly Monson Road, Dudley Road and York Road.

Sally Atkinson gathering a signature for the petition to stop the scheme from Adam Chapman of Wolfit in Monson Road
Sally Atkinson gathering a signature for the petition to stop the scheme from Adam Chapman of Wolfit in Monson Road

Dudley Road resident Sally Atkinson is one of more than 700 people who have signed a petition to KCC calling for the scheme to be scrapped.

She said: “According to the DfT, there is supposed to be follow-up consultation with residents after a scheme like this, to see how it’s working out – but neither council has done this.”

She said that some residents were moving out of Dudley Road, because of the difficulty in parking near their homes. If they miss a spot on the first approach, they have to take an extremely long diversion, because of the bus lane, via Monson Road, Calverly Road, Crescent Road and Church Road to loop back to London Road to approach Dudley Road again.

She suggested it would be possible to come up with a different scheme, reversing the one-way in Dudley Road, that still kept the bus lane closure, but avoided imposing unnecessarily long detours for residents.

She said: “The changes could be minimal and could be easily funded from the sizeable PCN revenue stream.”

Jim Key, also of Dudley Road, said: “Delivery vans in Monson Road are now having to do a three-point turn, which is clearly a safety hazard that had not been taken into account.”

A driver reversed through the frontage of Blacks outdoor shop in Monson Road
A driver reversed through the frontage of Blacks outdoor shop in Monson Road

“As a result, the businesses on Monson Road are struggling to get their deliveries and they are losing click-and-collect business as customers are reluctant to drive that close into town.”

He warned that the scheme would lead to fewer visitors, put off by the fines, and less footfall and trade for the town centre shops.

Mr Key said: “The whole scheme is ridiculous, but it has now turned into a cash cow, so I fully expect councillors to ignore my words.”

In July, a driver reversed through the front of Blacks store in Monson Road, while attempting a three-point turn, ending up with her vehicle completely inside the shop.

Pippa Collard of York Road said the scheme had already morphed from an imaginative public realm project into a mere highways scheme. As a result, what should have been an iconic scheme for the town centre had been “widely ridiculed.”

A sign with Except For Access taped over
A sign with Except For Access taped over

She said: “The signage is misleading; the routing of vehicles is not intuitive, and drivers are quite rightly confused.”

She said the number of fines was clear evidence of a system that wasn’t working, adding: “It’s no wonder that the public think this is just a council cash cow.”

But Tunbridge Wells council cabinet member Cllr Justine Rutland (Lib Dem) said: “The project is not done and dusted. It has removed some traffic from the town centre as intended, but we have to think now about what can be done to minimise the inconvenience for residents living close by the scheme and consider how we tackle the traffic displacement.

“I understand the signage is compliant (with legislation), but we need to think about what more can be done to help prevent people driving unwittingly through this area.”

Among the complaints about signage from drivers were that some roads only had a warning sign on one side of the carriageway, that one sign in Calverley Road was angled away from the traffic and therefore unreadable, and that other signs were marked Buses and Taxis, 9am to 6pm, except for access.

Cllr Justine Rutland (Lib Dem)
Cllr Justine Rutland (Lib Dem)

Peter Greenwood from Hildenborough received four penalty tickets before he discovered what he was doing wrong.

He said: “Except for Access? What does that mean? It was access that I wanted.”

It is the “Except For Access” wording that KCC has now taped over.

Cllr Paul Roberts (Con) said: “I feel sorry for residents trying to get in touch wth KCC, trying to get in touch with Tunbridge Wells and being passed from one to the other.”

But Cllr Peter Oakford (Con), the Kent county councillor for Tunbridge Wells North, was in doubt as to who was responsible. He said: “This is purely a Tunbridge Wells council scheme.”

They could stop collectng the fines tomorrow

“Kent County Council does not have any control over this scheme whatsoever.

“I wrote to the KCC director of highways asking if we could just cancel the scheme because of the mess that there was over fines, and he said it’s all down to Tunbridge Wells Borough Council.

“Tunbridge Wells reaps the benefits of this scheme. All of the fines go into their coffers. It swells their budget, not Kent County Council’s.”

But he did concede: “KCC may be responsible for the signage, and if some of the signage needs to be updated that’s down to KCC, but it’s only Tunbridge Wells that can cancel this scheme.

“They could stop collecting the fines tomorrow, should they wish to do so.”

Cllr Peter Oakford
Cllr Peter Oakford

But Cllr Siobhan O’Connell (Tunbridge Wells Alliance) said just stopping the scheme would create a safety issue for pedestrians because an island at the junction of Monson Road with Mount Pleasant had been removed as part of the project.

Cllr Alain Lewis (Lab) agreed. He said: “We’ve gone too far just to cancel the scheme, but something does have to be done to solve the issues.”

KCC said it did not wish to comment.

Tunbridge Wells council’s response was: “The signs are KCC’s responsibility.”

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