Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday Times Magazine ...first time for everything

Drove round Sunderland with Matt and detailed the many failings of a mismanaged system of enforcement, not just in Sunderland but across the country. As councils start their 'we need to raise PCN levels' kite flying exercise a very bright spotlight is about to be shone on an 'industry' that has failed to self-regulate and whose failings have been regularly ignored by all and sundry. When it has come under scrutiny and challenge by the public in Dave's Big Society those individuals have been treated with disproportionate costs. The truth will eventually out and there are some very worried council officers (serving and former) who may well suffer at the hands of their former colleagues.

I'll only be parking my car here for a couple of minutes
Matt Rudd
21 November 2010

The meter is ticking for traffic wardens, but don't rejoice yet. The smart computers that are replacing them can spot a transgression a mile away.

Tuesday. 1600 hours. A windowless control room somewhere deep in an anonymous Marylebone office block, central London, and it’s all very Spooks. I am sitting next to Donald, nickname: the Godfather.
From his bank of computer screens, he can control more than 100 cordless cameras across London, but right now we’re focused on just one.

With the help of joystick controls, we have our target locked: the man is sitting in his sleek black Mercedes on Harley Street. From his relaxed demeanour, it is clear he has no idea we’re watching him or that, in 13 seconds, he’s toast. Ten, nine, eight… it’s the point in the operation where all the training comes in…
Five, four, three… Come to papa. Two, one… boom! Target eliminated.

Well, okay, not eliminated. But that’s more than two minutes and one second parked on a single yellow line between the hours of 8.30am and 6.30pm, Mr Mercedes Driver. No explosion, no sniper’s bullet, but in about 10 days’ time, you will be receiving a £60 parking ticket. Kapow.
This is just the start: the traditional traffic warden is dead. The cyber-enforcement officer is taking over I am willing to accept that the parking-enforcement headquarters of Westminster council are not quite as glamorous as the MI6 headquarters across the river, but it is certainly futuristic. And while MI6 might be concerned with dirty bombs, terror cells and agents in holdalls, Donald and his colleagues are after you. Yes, you. The illegal parker. They are the traffic wardens of the future. They sit at their terminals — up to 10 of them at a time — prowling the streets virtually, via wi-fi CCTV.

This is the first time anywhere in the world that remote, wireless cameras have been used to enforce parking. They find an illegally parked car, they video it for that very precise, very legally binding two minutes and one second, and they issue the ticket.
Five or six an hour is a good rate of attack — and all from the comfort of a swivel chair. Donald prefers it to his days issuing tickets on the actual streets. You get less hassle, he says, but “not as much exercise”.

The £1.3m annual contract for the CCTV operation is outsourced to the private company NSL (“intelligent urban management solutions for the public and private sector”), which is the largest employer of enforcement officers in the country. They are very proud of Donald and his team. They’ve already shown him off to several British councils, the Icelanders and the Norwegians. Next week, a delegation from Stockholm will drop in. Everyone has been terribly enthusiastic. Everyone, I’m guessing, except the man in the black Mercedes when, in a few days, he opens that official-looking envelope from Westminster council (the printing of which, by the way, is outsourced to another joyless office in Scotland).

The purist would argue that Mercedes man deserves it. He shouldn’t have parked on the single yellow line in the first place. Donald points out that when they first put one of the cameras in Soho’s Old Compton Street, they were issuing 50 tickets a day. Now, this has reduced to a trickle — and the road is clear. To demonstrate, he flicks his screen to Old Compton Street and shows me how devoid of cars it is. “Everyone knows not to park illegally down there,” he says, proudly.
To the rest of us, getting ticketed by a man watching you from 1.8 miles across town with a two-minute stopwatch might seem a bit, well, unfair. Officious. An infringement of one’s God-given right to wi-fi-free fair play.

But this is just the start: the traditional traffic warden is dead. The cyber-enforcement officer is taking over. Westminster’s multi-million-pound black ops is at the forefront of a step-change in parking control. It’s getting smarter, it’s getting more technical and it’s getting harder to avoid.

Banksy’s fantasy of a steamrolled traffic warden in Lewisham

Six years ago, 6m parking tickets were issued in England alone. Last year, that figure reached 9m. That’s 9m £60 fines. Or 9m days ruined. Only 1% of offenders bother to appeal. The rest accept their fate and pay up. The threat of the fine doubling if it isn’t settled within 14 days — something oddly akin to the concept of pleading guilty to get a lighter sentence — might have something to do with it.

Across the country, video surveillance — both at fixed points and in cars — is becoming de rigueur for parking control. Thirty-four councils used it last year, generating £3m in fines. Many more local authorities have gone high-tech this year. In Cheshire, they’re now being used to clamp down on double-parking at the school gate. As of January, Bolton council will be armed with a Smart Car sporting a 3.6m-high CCTV mast. In Enfield, north London, 40% of parking tickets were issued via CCTV in the first 12 months of the programme. And in just one year, Camera No 225 on Grant Road, next to Clapham Junction railway station, issued more than 6,000 tickets, earning £300,000 for Wandsworth council. As of this month, Bromley council has even started strapping head-cams to its wardens. Awesome.

For those kids who didn’t make it through the X Factor auditions, might I recommend the all-new BTec in CCTV Traffic Enforcement? You’ll be taught “within the current legal framework and gain the confidence to handle breaches of regulations correctly and effectively”. Forget the three Rs. In these times of economic uncertainty, these are the future-proof skills you need. It wasn’t always like this. There used to be traffic wardens, the old sort, in black-and-yellow uniforms. The Yellow Peril. They started patrolling Britain’s streets in September 1960, not just to “issue tickets for parking offences” but also to “offer advice to motorists”. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? “I wouldn’t park there, sonny. I’d have to give you a ticket. Oh, and your left rear’s a bit flat.” That sort of thing.

It simply isn’t fair if you’re getting a ticket from a camera you may not have even noticed. Where’s the discretion? Of course they were unpopular. Nobody’s ever going to love a traffic warden. In fact it only took three years before the first motorist had rigged up a vehicle to an electric cattle prod with the sole intent to electrocute one. Peter Hicks, a powerboat-racing farmer who used to fly his produce from Sussex to the wholesale market in Covent Garden by ex-American army helicopter, was just the sort of eccentric to take on these newfangled parking enforcers. In 1963, he booby-trapped his Land Rover with a 2,000-volt charge and spent many a happy lunch in the pub with his mates watching traffic wardens try to ticket it. “The attempts frequently ended in a huge bang and much merriment for those watching in the pub,” recalls his son. Hicks was eventually arrested and charged with assault, but after nine months the police dropped all charges.

While this doesn’t mean that in the 1960s it was legal to electrocute traffic wardens, prosecutors decided they wouldn’t be able to make an assault charge stick.
Hicks got off with a warning, but he didn’t know how good he had it back then. Things are quite different today. If you want a piece of legislation to blame, try the 1991 Road Traffic Act. It allowed local authorities to apply for Decriminalised Parking Enforcement (DPE) powers. They could create controlled parking zones (CPZs) within which PCNs (penalty charge notices) could be issued without recourse to law. Parking was no longer a police matter.

Instead of traffic wardens, this heralded the rise of the civil enforcement officer, the employment of whom was increasingly outsourced to private companies. By the end of the 1990s, all of London’s councils were using CPZs. Manchester adopted them in 1999, Liverpool in 2002. Then the smaller rural councils followed suit. Now, 272 of the 326 local authorities in England have decriminalised parking.

“In every local authority area where CPZs were introduced, there has been at least a five-fold increase in the number of tickets issued,” says the parking campaigner Neil Herron as we drive around Sunderland on a sunny Monday morning. “It’s because the councils can keep the money. Under the old system, you were fined by the court and the money went to the Treasury. Now, the councils get it all. Herron has spent most of the last decade fighting what he sees as the mission creep of parking regulation.

He points out all the city-centre shops that have closed in recent months. Of course, it’s because of the recession, but the tough parking controls have, he says, pushed several small businesses into the abyss. There’s a boarded-up newsagent, a boarded-up grocer’s, a boarded-up furniture store, all gone to the wall, says Herron, because parking in town is a nightmare.
“Civil servants are no longer civil, or servants. Instead, we’ve let these petty officials accrue absolute power. Local authority regimes have come to depend on the vast rewards from parking enforcement to support and underpin their profligacy as a stealth tax,” he says, as a warden swaggers past.

When I ask Herron what he thinks about the spread of CCTV enforcement, he shrugs and says it’s part of our gradual transition into a Big Brother state. The AA calls it “Orwellian”. Paul Watters, the AA’s head of roads and transport policy, says things have got out of hand. “It’s not a moving offence. It’s not a speeding offence. And yet the fine is the same. And it simply isn’t fair if you’re getting a ticket from a camera you may not have even noticed. Where’s the discretion?”
The people in charge of the future of parking over in Westminster are moving to the next stage which they’re calling, rather frighteningly, smart enforcement. The ticketing machines that wardens carry are being upgraded. From now on, wardens won’t just ticket. They’ll feed information back to a central “compliance” database to enable controllers to “rapidly deploy” staff to problem areas. It’s the parking equivalent of a Swat team. The new handheld computers could also, the council hopes, “limit the enforcement options available to the warden depending on the type of parking offence committed, the location and any previous tickets issued to the motorist”.

Because, when you ask them, they like to show their touchy-feely side. They’re all about compliance rather than profit. They want to educate rather than penalise. And they’re keen to change the reputation of the civil enforcement officer as a ticket-happy jobsworth. That won’t be easy, as a glance over recent headlines shows.

June 28, 2007: “Traffic warden battered unconscious at soldier’s wake”;

December 18, 2007: “Traffic warden homophobically attacked in Blackpool”;

September 4, 2009: “Driver who caused injuries to traffic warden jailed”;

February 11, 2010: “Traffic warden has cigarette stubbed in his face”;

June 14, 2010: “Traffic warden attacked with knife in Northamptonshire”;

September 10, 2010: “Driver attempts to run down traffic warden in Croydon”.

Cherelle, egged on by Matt Rudd, slaps a PCN on a Land Rover in Soho
Cherelle is a traffic warden in Soho. Unlike Donald, she is a real person on the real streets giving out actual tickets. I join her for her evening patrol one Tuesday to see how it’s done, the old-fashioned way. It’s a chance, the council tells me, to see that not all parking-enforcement people are evil, that they may be doing the job for good reasons. Don’t judge me for this, but Cherelle and I start out getting on famously. When we meet, I’m nervous. I am, after all, a parking-enforcement officer by association. It’s getting dark. I’m going to be run down, have a cigarette put out in my face, be forced to go to Croydon. Cherelle, on the other hand, isn’t nervous at all. She loves her job. She gave up a career in marketing to do it. And although many of her colleagues might be moving up into the cyber-headquarters, she wouldn’t want to follow. “I’m happy walking the streets,” she says. “I like talking to people. If you can’t talk to people, you can’t see the whole picture.” It’s all about people skills, you see. Not all parking enforcement needs to be evil.

We’ll see. We walk past a brand-new Land Rover on Soho Square. I think it’s been pretty well established that a 4x4 is not ideally suited to central London.
As if to prove my point, this monster is crossing a good 10 inches into the neighbouring parking space.
“Can we ticket that?” I ask Cherelle, hopefully.
“Noooo,” she replies, because she is a reasonable parking-enforcement officer on an official media tour.
“Oh, come on,” I say. “It’s taking up two spaces.” If ever there was a reasonable time and place for parking enforcement, it’s right here, right now, on this Land Rover’s ass.
Cherelle starts issuing the ticket. He looks casual. Cherelle looks calm. I try to blend into the adjacent sex shop (not easy)
Because she doesn’t yet have the new handheld computer that will be controlling her movements via a mastermind central database, she checks with head office by mobile phone. And they say, yes — Offence 26: incorrect parking, or parking not within a bay. PCN-time. Kerching.

As Cherelle fills out the £60 fine (rising to £120 after 14 days, of course), a low-slung Toyota comes around the corner and slows down.
“How do you sleep at night?” yells the driver before cruising off down Greek Street.
Five minutes later, we’re having a face-off with a double-parked minicab driver who’s refusing to move because he’s eating his chicken and rice.
Cherelle starts issuing the ticket. He looks casual. Cherelle looks calm. I try to blend into the adjacent sex shop (not easy, lots of dildos).
“You do realise I’m going to issue you for being here?” she reiterates and starts taking photographs. Finally, he drives off, head bowed, battle lost. It’s been 10 minutes of confrontation. I ask Cherelle if she thinks she’ll suffer post-traumatic stress when she retires. She says she never takes her work home with her.

Water off a traffic warden’s back. She adds that she gets a lot of men flirting with her. It’s the uniform, she says. Now, Cherelle is a perfectly attractive lady, but to any man out there who finds that particular uniform alluring: that is niche, my friend. Seriously niche. They don’t even do websites for that sort of thing.

It’s halfway through our evening together and we’re at the sharp end. A truck is offloading in a suspended bay. Cherelle has her grumpy face on. The driver is nowhere to be seen. The driver’s mate is trying to stall her by doing jokes, diversion techniques and panic, but nothing’s working. She’s going to give the truck a ticket. This seems totally unfair. They aren’t blocking the road. They aren’t causing any trouble. They’re just trying to get some supplies into a local theatre.

This time, I try to blend into a coffee shop as things turn unreasonable. With seconds to spare, the driver emerges from a shop, slams the back door shut and hops into the front seat. With a sarcastic, nay triumphant wave, he drives off. “That was quite harsh,” I tell Cherelle. She’s astonished. “I think I was nice,” she says. “He had committed an offence and he was continuing to commit an offence. I talked to him.”
I’m out with the nicest parking-enforcement officer in London, the one they send out with journalists. And she still couldn’t give the lorry bloke an extra couple of minutes to offload his van. But at least she talked to him. If CCTV had been involved, the driver would have got a ticket.
Then, Cherelle goes rogue. A Spanish couple start videoing us. Cherelle, who had been doing a moped for parking on a pavement, storms over and, after a long chat, confiscates the DVD from their camera. “I don’t want to be on the internet doing this. The council would be furious. You can’t record people without permission,” she says. This isn’t strictly true. You can record what you like in public. It’s only when you stick it on YouTube that things get tricky.

A few minutes later, the Spanish boyfriend returns looking sheepish. He says he’s just remembered there’s something on the tape he wouldn’t want anyone else to see. Could he snap it in half?
And me and his very grumpy Spanish girlfriend watch as Cherelle agrees to let him destroy what was undoubtedly his prized London amateur porn movie.

I feel like a coffee break, but Cherelle is busy clearing an entire street of minicabs. She asks a frightened Chinese family to move on but ignores one illegally parked car because it’s a chauffeur waiting for an actor to come out of a studio. “I don’t ticket cars waiting for actors,” she explains. “Actors get enough hassle.” This is all mind-boggling to me, the civilian.

I ask her if she ever feels guilty and she says she once ticketed a car that she subsequently realised was owned by a disabled person. Then she felt bad. But she’s nothing like the big issuers, as she calls them. “They’ll stick a ticket on first and ask questions later. I don’t do that.”
Cherelle is hardcore — you have to be to do her job — but rather charming. Nevertheless, after three hours in her wake, I need two G&Ts on my 20-minute train home to steady my nerves.
Between you and me, it’s easy to get off a CCTV ticket. All you need to do is say that you were helping a pregnant women cross the road Councils will tell you that 10 years from now they expect to be issuing far fewer tickets. The dream for them and their third-party contractors is to achieve 95% compliance.

Fewer tickets sounds good, but what it means for the motorist is that you will do as you’re told. The days of dodging the warden will be over.
Set foot in a bus lane, put your tickers on in a loading bay, pull over for a couple of minutes to buy the wonderful Sunday Times as a newspaper, and you will be zapped. Gizmos such as portable CCTV, handheld computers and all-seeing compliance databases will be one step ahead of you. Orwellian indeed. Are there ways to resist? We could revolt. As Neil Herron says, you get a £70 fine if you shoplift, and £60 if you stop on a single yellow at the wrong time in front of a CCTV camera.
“The motoring public of this country has been treated as a cash cow for too long,” he says. “This is not just about a parking ticket ... it’s about how we are governed and the contempt with which we are held.
We have reached the watershed and it is now the time for change.” We could stand up to the councils and their cyber-parking attack dogs. We could stop paying our council tax until the £60 fine is halved and the 14-day doubling threat is abandoned. We could lock up all the civil enforcers for being horrid. But that’s not terribly British. It’s more French — and look at the mess they’re in.

We could tell a lie. Back in that windowless Marylebone control room, Donald had whispered a bit of advice just before I’d said goodbye. “Between you and me,” he confided, looking around nervously, “it’s easy to get off a CCTV ticket. All you need to do is say that you were helping a pregnant women cross the road just around the corner. Or an old woman get up some stairs. That sort of thing. The council won’t bother contesting your appeal. It’s too much hassle.”
Or we could forget parking altogether and take the train.

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