Thursday, December 10, 2009

Parking goldmine lures fat cat enforcer to Westminster

London Evening Standard
Simon English

In the lucrative world of car parking contracts, Westminster Council is the bonanza prize, the jackpot at the end of the rainbow. Around 600,000 vehicles come into Westminster's 8.5 square miles every day.

That's like a giant school of plankton in a small pond to your average traffic warden whale — open wide and ticket. There are too many cars chasing too few parking spaces and in the frustrations of an average working day, some drivers take a chance in the usually false hope that they might just be lucky…

The council itself says it's not legally allowed to make a profit from parking enforcement. Its “surplus income” from parking — £35 million last year, thanks very much — goes to pay for the men on the streets and for other transport projects.

For the firms running the enforcement deal, however, it's a goldmine, worth around £12 million a year. For the last seven years the contract has been held by NSL, the former services arm of National Car Parks which split from the main company and is now owned by private equity.

Now it's up for grabs. This week firms who want to bid for the right to be parking enforcer for the next four years — with an option for two more after that — have to submit their final proposals. In the running, I am told, are three firms: NSL again, Apcoa (formerly the Airport Parking Company of America), and Mouchel, a publicly listed company formed in 2003 from the merger of two engineering firms, Mouchel and Parkman.

A preferred bidder shortlist will be approved in January, with a decision taken shortly after. Mouchel is perhaps the most interesting of the three in the frame. It only entered parking enforcement relatively recently and has been making headway in winning contracts, securing deals in Newham (the so-called Olympic borough) and Hillingdon among others.

In chatting to officials about which firm might win the prestigious Westminster deal, an intriguing name came up. Stuart Lawrenson is, to those in the know, one of the most successful players in the UK parking industry — a fat cat enforcer, you might say. He is also the former chief executive of Central Parking Ltd where he was accused of misappropriating assets belonging to the American firm for his own benefit. Lawrenson resigned as a director of the company and paid £130,000, as well as forfeiting Central Parking shares, in settlement of the allegations.

In filings to the Securities & Exchange Commission, Central Parking blamed former managers of its UK arm for “unauthorised related party transactions and improper and inaccurate accounting entries”. Lawrenson is back in the game. I'm told he attended a meeting with council officials at a Westminster hotel last month to discuss the parking enforcement contract, allegedly in the pay of Mouchel.

I asked the company what role Lawrenson plays for them, and got the following: “Mouchel does not comment on the details of live procurements as these are confidential and commercially sensitive. Stuart Lawrenson is not, nor ever has been, an employee of Mouchel but works for a company that provides technology products to the parking industry. In common with other companies, we use some of these as part of our parking enforcement offer.”

Lawrenson has paid his fine and is perhaps entitled to continue his career. As long as everyone involved knows of his history, there's probably no cause for concern.

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