When the Conservatives talk about the War on the Motorist which they are keen to end, they tend to focus on speed cameras, fuel taxes and plans for a congestion charge. There is, though, a much more obvious area of concern for motorists who are literally being cheated out of millions of pounds annually by private parking companies and where action could be taken quite easily to remedy the situation.
The lack of effective regulation in this area became apparent to me a couple of weeks ago when a friend of mine, Liam, an FE teacher, found to his horror that his car had been towed away on a wet Thursday evening for being parked on a council estate. To say that the signs on the estate were confusing is to confer a spurious legitimacy on them. One large one, using Department for Transport approved lettering, suggested that it was ok to park on the estate after 6 30pm but another, unlit and dirty, posted above a garage, said that parking was prohibited in the vicinity of the sign. In the dark, it was impossible to see and there were no yellow lines or other markings to indicate where the restriction applied.
The car was first clamped then towed away, all in the space of the time that Liam had a Yoga lesson, just over an hour. The car was not actually causing any obstruction and therefore towing it away was solely a money making exercise. For the company it was certainly worthwhile: the total bill was £467, which included £147 for wheel-clamping, hardly necessary given the car was towed away. Worse, the next day Liam had to venture into the wilds of an industrial estate which was, in his words, ‘inaccessible by public transport, dark, and threatening with high walls and deserted badly-lit streets’. When he got to the entrance of the pound – which closed at 5pm – a huge Rottweiler charged at him. The road itself was not even on the A-Z and while the experience was ok for him as a middle aged man who had bicycled there, recouping a car would have been a terrifying experience for a woman. A check with companies house reveals that the company operating the pound shares an address with a defunct company operated by a man with criminal connections. Appealing against these ‘fines’ involves dealing with these companies that have shadowy origins and aggressive hounds that make visitors unwelcome.
A similar case, this time on a private shopping precinct in Stockport, resulted last year in a rare victory for the motorist. Martin Cutts had parked in the precinct and had not seen a tiny sign that said it was a ‘pay and display’ area. He was ‘fined’ £60, rising to £100 and refused to pay, and succeeded in court by showing that the very small sign was inadequate to warn motorists of the need to pay. The judge even visited the site to assure herself that this was the case. However, the parking firm, Excel, had managed to issue a staggering near 12,000 tickets to motorists for failing to pay the £1 charge, earning them at least £700,000 and probably much more. Cutts said afterwards: ‘the whole operation is aimed at issuing tickets rather than collecting the money from pay and display’.
This is clearly the tip of an iceberg as such stories are all too easy to uncover. Councils, housing associations and developers are employing dodgy parking outfits whose only concern is to maximise their revenue. Their charges are out of all proportion to the costs incurred or to the nature of the offence. Having to pay £500 for making a possible mistake is not commensurate with the offence that has been committed, if indeed there was one since there are doubts whether Liam’s car was parked illegally at all.
Secondly, these companies have easy access to drivers’ personal details. A former senior police officer, Nev Metson, has been campaigning on behalf of drivers on these issues for several years and recently gave evidence to the Commons Transport Committee. He found that the DVLA processed nearly one million applications from private parking companies asking for vehicle keepers details and that the scrutiny of such companies is remarkably limited. Although is supposed to show due cause as to why it is asking for this information, once a company has obtained registration to obtain information electronically, there is no oversight of reasons for the release of information.
Therefore unscrupulous firms are able to obtain information and pursue drivers as in the Stockport case. The main point, however, is that these are not legitimate operations designed to control illegal parking and ensure traffic flow. They are scams aimed at, to put it bluntly, screwing the motorist. They have a pseudo legitimacy calling, for instance, their charges ‘fines’ and try to appear to have the same status as local councils and therefore giving the real authorities a bad name.
This is the true war on the motorist, with thousands of people presumably caught up in it every day, but successive governments have failed to address the issue and ensure that this industry is properly regulated. Given this administration’s aversion to red tape, it will be hard to persuade ministers that action is required but clearly there is a desperate need to exert control over these cowboys and to restore legitimacy to parking control.
Stop press: Liam got his money back, thanks to press interest,but there must be thousands of people in this position who are cheated out of hard earned cash.