February 9 2005
Since the law allowed councils to control parking enforcement, cash has been rolling in. But it is fast becoming a PR disaster for local authorities as the public grows increasingly angry - and questions what the money is being spent on. Andrew Clark investigates
Guide: London boroughs - highest profits from parking
Guide: the most ticket-happy authorities outside London
By mid-morning in a typical London street, the traffic begins to slow. The rush hour has long receded and the school run is a distant memory. Motorists begin to relax and feel they can pull up outside shops. But they do so at their peril.
Gone are the days when drivers could jump out of their cars to pick up a newspaper, a coffee or a packet of cigarettes. A meter, if available, can cost up to £4 an hour. Nine out of 10 spaces are typically reserved for local residents. And the Jedi knights of local government - parking attendants - are on the prowl. A couple of minutes' ill-judged pause can mean a fine of up to £100.
Once viewed as a necessary cost in keeping the roads free of obstruction, parking enforcement has become a crucial moneyspinner for local authorities. But has it gone too far? According to Edmund King, director of the RAC Foundation, "parking is the least well-thought-out, the least well-considered and the least well-researched form of transport policy. It is just used by local authorities as a convenient and easy way to raise money, rather than as a policy issue."
The RAC estimates that parking fees, fines and meters generate profits of £350m for English councils every year - of which the lion's share is pocketed by London boroughs, which account for 44% of gross parking income. In Scotland, no central figures are available, but Edinburgh alone made £16m revenue from parking after issuing 250,000 parking tickets last year.
Horror stories on parking crop up with alarming regularity. Milkmen, firemen, undertakers and even bus drivers have been the angry recipients of parking fines in recent years. On one occasion, a parking warden in Eccles, Greater Manchester, even ticketed a rabbit hutch, which was left on a yellow line during a delivery to a pet shop.
Outbreaks of "parking rage" are becoming common; three parking attendants are assaulted a day in London. In evidence to a London assembly inquiry into parking enforcement, which opens tomorrow, boroughs will call for a specific offence of assaulting a warden, citing instances of attendants being run over, assaulted by gangs wielding baseball bats, and even shot at.
Motoring organisations have run out of patience. King says: "Of Britain's 25m cars, just 1m are on the move and 24m are parked at any time. Across England and Wales, the number of parking tickets handed out to motorists is approaching 8m annually - equivalent to one for every three cars. In the capital, the number of penalty notices has jumped by 45% in four years to 5.9m.
The boom began in 1993, when parking was decriminalised by the Conservative government - a move that allowed the police to devolve responsibility for enforcement to local authorities. So far, some 120 councils have taken up the challenge. In theory, local authorities are supposed to have two parking priorities: keeping traffic flowing as freely as possible, and maintaining the safety of pedestrians. However, a constant allegation is that they manipulate charges to maximise revenue.
Nick Lester, director of transport at the Association of London Government, refutes this. He says: "Enforcement has clearly gone up. Income has gone up, but then expenditure on the roads has gone up. One of the myths around this business is that the parking thing is just a way of raising money."
In order to deter councils from fleecing motorists, the proceeds are supposed to be ringfenced. But this hypothecation has slipped over the years. When parking meters first became prevalent in the 1950s, the RAC objected to the idea that motorists should pay simply to leave their cars at the side of the road. As a compromise, the government ruled that all the proceeds should be earmarked for highways and car parks.
By 1968, some local authorities had accumulated hefty cashpiles, which they did not want to spend on car parks for fear of merely generating more traffic. To address their concerns, the then Labour transport minister, Barbara Castle, broadened the rules to cover expenditure on public transport. In December, the chancellor, Gordon Brown, went further by announcing that councils could spend parking proceeds on environment projects, as well as transport measures. High-rated "beacon" councils have complete freedom; they can use the money for anything they like.
Westminster council made profits of £33m from parking revenue of £64m in 2003 - by far the highest of any local authority in Britain. It says projects that depend on this annual cash cow included construction of the Hungerford foot bridge over the Thames and the creation of a £60m vehicle access point to Paddington station. All of London's boroughs pump parking proceeds into the Freedom Pass - a £200m free public transport scheme for older and disabled travellers.
Outside the capital, surpluses tend to be much smaller. Manchester city council made £1.3m profit from parking last year. Some of the cash went on a free Metro Shuttle city-centre bus. The rest went towards the £350,000 cost of maintaining "public roam" areas, such as Cathedral Gardens and Exchange Square.
Manchester's operations director, Pete North, says the Labour-run authority has made a conscious decision against adopting a "zero tolerance" attitude to parking. He says: "For a city of Manchester's size, we don't go about parking enforcement in an aggressive way - it's all about a reasonable, proportionate approach."
But critics fear that motorists are losing confidence in enforcement. In the pages of the London Evening Standard, columnists have described enforcement as akin to a new poll tax. There are concerns that rows over parking could lead to violence similar to the vandalism frequently directed at speed cameras by pro-motoring fanatics.
Guidelines do exist to stop councils from imposing "rip-off" charges. Local authorities are supposed to pitch prices for meters or pay-and-display bays to secure 85% occupancy - enough to make good use of space, while avoiding the need for motorists to search for hours for a vacancy. This is not always followed very closely.
In Westminster, occupancy has been well below 85% since the introduction of London mayor Ken Livingstone's congestion charge in 2003. The council's cabinet member for transport, Colin Barrow, says cutting prices will be "one option" if the shortfall continues - but the authority may opt simply to provide fewer available spaces, earmarking more bays for residents or for lorries offloading.
He insists that the council is not out to maximise revenue, although he adds: "We have to deal with some very significant consequences of being in central London. When we have events such as the Golden Jubilee, the Notting Hill carnival or the Queen's birthday, the mess has to be cleaned up afterwards. We don't get any extra funds to do that."
The AA Motoring Trust accepts that congested city centres sometimes have to levy hefty prices for parking, but it asks why outlying areas are following suit. It questions whether a town such as Colchester, Essex, ought to be asking £2.50 for two hours' parking - or whether so many of Britain's leafy suburban streets really need residents' parking schemes. Paul Watters, the trust's head of roads policy, says: "It's become a gravy train. Parking has got to wash its face - but, in many areas, it's gone far beyond that."
Most councils use private contractors, such as NCP, Vinci Park or Central Parking, to supply parking attendants. The British Parking Association (BPA), which represents the industry, has become so concerned about public opprobrium that it has asked Richard Childs, a former chief constable of Lincolnshire, to produce an independent review of decriminalised parking. His report is expected later this year.
The BPA's chief executive, Keith Banbury, says the industry employs 35,000 people and generates £3bn of annual turnover. He accepts that a public backlash is gaining pace. "There has been a great deal of media coverage, which has fuelled public concern - some of which has been sensationalist and some not unreasonable," he says.
Among the thorniest issues are the bonuses that reward contractors for handing out more tickets. For example, Islington, north London, requires NCP, under the terms of a "performance indicator", to clamp 21,017 vehicles a year and to tow away 9,450.
The BPA wants to move away from such bald incentives and has drawn up a model contract for councils that omits volume-based bonuses. As Banbury points out: "If enforcement is working, the number of tickets issued should go down."
Complaints about parking have soared. The National Parking Adjudication Service, which deals with disputes outside London, has upped the number of adjudicators from four to 80 since 1993. They settled 8,537 complaints in 2003 - an increase of 88% on 2002 - and two-thirds found in favour of the motorist.
This year, angry motorists forced Westminster into an embarrassing U-turn over parking on New Year's Day. The council initially insisted that, because it fell on a Saturday, the day did not count as a public holiday. But after a furious backlash, it relented and agreed to rescind 3,716 tickets.
Environmental groups dismiss the motorists' squeals of pain and say that money raised from them was justified to mitigate the environmental damage caused by cars. Tony Bosworth, Friend's of the Earth's transport campaigner, says: "Parking controls are one way of helping to manage demand for car use. It's important that the money is spent on other forms of transport, and in giving motorists and alternative to using their cars so much."
But the motoring lobby argues that the cash should be invested in more parking facilities and better roads.
The RAC says parking received £29m of public capital in the UK last year - compared to £48m on cycling and £75m on pedestrian facilities. It argues that proceeds from meters and car parks should be used to fund underground silos to cope with booming demand.
The AA's Watters believes that motorists deserve far better facilities. "There is absolutely no excuse any more for councils that provide insecure, pothole-ridden car parks," he says. "The money should be used for parking before it goes anywhere else."
But the Association of London Government is unsympathetic. A spokesman says: "Law abiding motorists are not affected by all this. If you don't break the law, you don't get a fine."
Another fine mess ...
A traffic warden outraged local people and Holocaust survivors at a memorial service in Swindon last month when he interrupted proceedings to tell the mayor to move his car. The president of the town's Jewish committee said the warden should apologise publicly, calling his behaviour an "insult". Swindon borough council refused to apologise. A spokeswoman said: "The attendant did not know it was the mayor's car. He did not issue a ticket. He asked the mayor if it would be possible to move the car on."
A pensioner in Southampton who has arthritis and a heart condition was given a ticket early one morning because his disabled badge was obscured by frost on the windscreen. A neighbour challenged the warden and rubbed the windscreen to reveal the badge. The warden issued the ticket regardless. A council spokesman said: "It's the responsibility of the motorist to make sure the parking ticket [disability badge] is visible along with the tax disc."
In Cheam, Surrey, a mother of three young children was shocked when, after pulling her car over into a motorcycle parking bay to help a child in the back seat who was choking, a parking attendant slapped a ticket on her windscreen. Sutton council said it would reimburse the mother over what it called "an unfortunate incident".
The rider of a scooter in London was suffering from a broken leg and being assisted into an ambulance when a traffic warden appeared and put a ticket on his mangled bike. The fine was later cancelled after protests from the rider - a councillor from south London.
Another man in London received a parking ticket from Lambeth council when he parked his car on a clear bit of road, but returned to find that yellow lines had been painted on either side of the car. The council apologised and advised the man to apply to have the ticket cancelled.
A woman in Birkenhead was told by a parking attendant that she should have locked her young baby in her car while she fetched a ticket from the pay and display meter. The delay caused by taking the child with her to the machine, rather than going alone, was cited as the reason for receiving a ticket. Wirral council cancelled the ticket and said it would apologise.
A Swedish man was astonished to be issued with a parking fine for his snowmobile in Warwick, even though it had never left Sweden. A Warwickshire county council spokesman says: "This actually happened in a shop car park. They put a ticket on a parked car, but when it went through the system it turned out to be the number of a snowmobile in Sweden. It was completely ridiculous."
An Edinburgh man who had been taking a friend to the city's dental hospital for emergency treatment received a ticket for parking in a bay that was out of bounds, even though the cones warning that he couldn't park there had been stolen. Edinburgh council said it had no record of the ticket being issued.
In Kingston, south London, a traffic warden used common sense by allowing an elderly couple to park their car momentarily on double yellow lines because the woman needed to assist her disabled husband into a nearby bank. However, a passing supervisor demanded that the warden give them a ticket. He refused, and was sacked.
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