08 April 2005
Fines, controls, ever more parking zones. Are these sensible ways to cut traffic and pollution, and raise much-needed revenue? Or just an excuse to rip off beleaguered motorists? David Meilton investigates the rise and rise of parking control schemes
A few Sundays ago, in a back street in Willesden Green, in the London Borough of Brent, a bizarre event could be witnessed. In the lamplight and freezing rain of eight o'clock at night, a uniformed parking warden was busy booking a car.
The spectacle prompted the thought: how desperate do these people have to be to fill their quotas to be out on a miserable winter Sunday night?
True, the car was on a double yellow line, and therefore illegally parked. But it was causing no obstruction, and its miscreant owner clearly thought he would not pay the penalty. Wrong.
Brent, it seems, is in the vanguard of those boroughs that – while stressing their commitment to order and traffic management – are actually dedicated to coining as much cash as possible out of the motorist.
So-called residents' parking areas are multiplying like rabbits. Pay-and-display zones proliferate on every high street, some charging up to £4.50 an hour for the convenience of using their space to pick up a pint of milk or a loaf of bread.
Brent, according to the latest Association of London Government figures, makes a profit of £1.8m a year on parking. But even in London it is far from the top of the league. Westminster, with higher charges, cashes in with £33.4m, followed by Kensington & Chelsea (£15.9m) and Camden (£13.2m).
Everyone has their parking story, not all of them apocryphal. There is the milkman in Burnley making a delivery, the rabbit hutch left on a yellow line in Eccles in Greater Manchester, the scooter rider being helped into an ambulance with a broken leg, and the woman in Camden parked six inches across her own driveway. All were ticketed.
Fair cop, you might say – they were outside the law (except perhaps the rabbit). True, also, that the wardens – who after all do not make the rules, and might be subject to punitive quotas to maximise their employers' profits – are too often on the sharp end of motorists' angry reactions, sometimes with violent consequences. The ALG, which represents the interests of the 33 London boroughs, makes the point that three parking wardens a day are assaulted on the capital's streets.
The battle lines are drawn and polarised. Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation – and therefore clearly pro-motorist – has been widely quoted criticising councils' exploitation of what some see as a cash cow. He told Public Finance: 'Parking is the poor relation of transport. Local authorities' capital spending on parking was only £29m last year, compared with £48m on cycling and £75m on pedestrian facilities.
'The principal problem is that since the rules changed to allow local authorities to take over responsibility from the police, the emphasis seems to be on the number of tickets being given out rather than keeping traffic flowing.'
King spent a recent Saturday morning at a small industrial estate in Hertfordshire. 'It's in a cul-de-sac, and the vehicles there were causing no obstruction, nor were they impeding traffic flow in any way. But because St Albans had recently got in a private company to manage its parking, they sent a team of wardens on mopeds to issue ticket after ticket on cars waiting to be auctioned. You've got to think that's about collecting revenue, not keeping traffic moving. What else can it be?'
The RAC Foundation produced a major report on the future of parking last December. Its chair David Holmes, commenting on the findings, said: 'Over-zealous parking attendants, coupled with unclear parking regulations, confusing signs and lack of adequate parking provision, often make the motorist's life a misery. The enforcement emphasis should be on free-flowing movement of traffic, not on raising revenue.'
Of course, the ALG, representing the revenue earners in the capital, disagrees. 'It is about keeping traffic moving and assuring the safety of all road users – it's not about raising revenue,' insists its spokesman.
This does not always ring true – to the motorist, at least. A recent Channel 4 undercover investigation showed London wardens being actively encouraged to hunt where the pickings were richest, and not always by the rules.
The open sesame for local authorities to cash in came in 1993 when the Conservative government decriminalised parking offences. New legislation allowed councils to take over the responsibility for – and the revenue from – managing parking from the police.
Since then the issuing of tickets has become increasingly privatised. Typically, a council takes on the job and then passes it on to private companies such as NCP, Apcoa and Central Parking, on contracts that can have built-in incentives.
According to the Department for Transport, around 120 authorities in England and Wales now have 'civil enforcement powers', including Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester.
The result has been a massive rise in the number of tickets issued, up from 3.4 million in 1993 to 7.6 million by 2002. According to RAC figures, parking infractions earn more than £350m a year for councils in England and Wales, from an overall take of around £1bn. London alone is responsible for 44% of gross parking revenue. There are no cumulative figures for Scotland, but in 2004, Edinburgh – among the keenest deployer of wardens ('meanies' as they are known in local vernacular) – earned £16m from issuing 250,000 tickets.
There are three ways for authorities to tap into this revenue source. The first is by making their car parks pay-and-display. The second is by turning all available space on or near shopping areas into designated parking bays, either with meters or pay-and-display cashpoints. The third is by turning street parking spaces into residents-only zones.
Councils are, for the most part, legally obliged to spend the revenue earned on transport or environmental projects. Whether they do or not is a matter of debate. But councils with an 'excellent' Comprehensive Performance Assessment rating have the freedom to spend as they choose.
If this sometimes seems like a vendetta against the car owner, that's because it is, at least in the eyes of the beleaguered motorist. And parking is far from the only high-profile bone of contention. Speed cameras (they do cause jams, says Derek Turner, the man appointed to run the Highways Agency), the London congestion charge, 4x4s in towns and cities (hello, Ken Livingstone, mayor of London and non-driver, who excoriates them as 'Chelsea tractors'), the school run, and even the humble speed hump have attracted nationwide controversy in recent times.
The Tories, ever-ready to tap into a presumed populist cause with an election on the horizon, last month promised to abolish all speed humps if returned to power. They claim that traffic calming measures create noise and vibration that can cause structural damage to houses, increase exhaust pollution and delay the emergency services.
This move could backfire. As one pro-hump resident of the London Borough of Haringey told Public Finance: 'If it comes to a choice between your right to speed down my road or my children being knocked down on their way to school, I know which freedom I prefer.'
And speed we do, even along suburban back streets, at up to 60mph. Your chances of being pulled up and prosecuted for the offence are statistically only marginally greater than your chances of winning the National Lottery.
But parking enforcement remains increasingly the bête noire. Hospitals charge, sports clubs charge, even some supermarket car parks are no longer free.
Now motorists and residents are fighting back. Websites, campaign groups and appeal advisory services are being set up. Islington Guardians, for example, represents a vociferous lobby, fuelled by the presence in the London borough of a high-profile media population, against what they say are 'draconian parking and traffic restrictions', which are causing long-established businesses literally to shut up shop.
It is said that the council's parking contract requires the company to clamp 21,017 cars a year and to tow away 9,450. But the council says: 'There are more cars than parking spaces on our roads and every council has to try to tackle the problems this causes. It is a priority to give residents a place to park their cars and that's why there are parking controls and controlled parking zones. CPZs reduce commuter parking, freeing up spaces and reducing congestion. This leads to a reduction in pollution and improves air quality, which benefits the whole community.'
It adds: 'The revenue generated is spent on concessionary fares such as the London Taxicard scheme, which benefits the elderly and the disabled.'
But even the firms that operate the parking contracts for local authorities are now being forced on to the defensive. Keith Banbury, chief executive of the British Parking Association, which represents many of the enforcement companies, recognises that there has been 'a decline in public confidence in parking solutions'. He says: 'There has been a great deal of media coverage, which has fuelled public concern, some sensational and some not unreasonable.'
The BPA has now asked the former chief constable of Lincolnshire, Richard Childs, to produce an independent review of decriminalised parking. Edmund King gives the BPA credit for trying to remedy the worst excesses. 'The key is the nature of the contract,' he says. 'If the contract puts an emphasis on the number of tickets, there is bound to be an implied pressure on the firms, and in turn on the wardens they employ, to raise the number of tickets issued.'
Yet more is soon to come. Under the Local Authorities and Transport for London Act 2003, brought into force last summer, London authorities are now entitled to take over the policing of a number of moving traffic offences as well as parking.
The Traffic Management Act 2004, shortly to come into force, opens the way for councils across the country to adopt similar schemes. A pilot scheme, begun by two boroughs and Transport for London last July and subsequently extended to a further four boroughs, resulted in around 67,000 penalty charge notices being issued.
Under the new laws, wardens can impose fines for illegal U-turns, entering yellow box junctions before the exit is clear, infringing bus lanes, stopping on zigzag lines outside a school, and flouting no-right-turn signs.
The ALG transport and environment committee will decide in June whether to offer the rest of London the chance to join in. Cllr Philip Portwood, the committee chair, says: 'The people who selfishly disregard things like no-entry signs and one-way streets are endangering the safety of all other road users. These powers are to help ease the congestion on our roads and make them as safe as possible. No one has the right to break the law, and the fines are issued only to those who needlessly flout the rules.'
The ALG points out that there is an appeals procedure, which allows anyone who feels unfairly targeted to contest a penalty notice. But, as the Channel 4 programme demonstrated, appeals are so mired in bureaucracy that they can befuddle even the most determined appellant. In some cases, the bailiffs were at the door before the matter was resolved.
One gleam of light at the end of the tunnel: the London Assembly has just begun an inquiry into traffic management and parking enforcement in the capital. The main objective, it says, is to investigate how the appropriate balance is maintained between the need to introduce and enforce parking controls and ensuring that the process is fair and effective.
It has already held two sessions, hearing evidence from interested bodies, but will find it hard to fight its way through the vested interests. In the meantime, the city motorist's sole remaining salvation is the rare free car park, often hidden in a back street. Their days might be numbered. There is one in Willesden Green – but I'm not telling you where it is. Some things are too precious to share.