A decade ago, parts of Britain went parking ticket mad. The number of tickets issued and the amount of money raised by councils spiralled upwards. It was claimed that one central London council actually raised more money from parking fines in one year than it did from council tax.
Even though those excesses have been mostly choked off by central government, there’s still plenty of marginal behaviour in play when it comes to parking tickets, clamping and towing.
I know this because earlier this year the Department for Transport issued a long and detailed document on this subject, titled National Guidance to Local Authorities: Parking Policy and Enforcement.
It’s a goldmine of fascinating information, because all the guidance can be clearly read as trying to stamp out various types of bad behaviour in local parking regimes.
Mind you, I’m only reading this fine document because of a run-in I had with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) at the beginning of the year.
I had an appointment at a hotel on the River Thames at Chelsea. I turned up to park for the hour in an area known as Lots Road, not too far from Stamford Bridge. Although all the parking bays were empty, the meters would only take coins and I was cashless.
RBKC seems to be the only central London borough that doesn’t offer smartphone or card payment. I looked around for the controlled parking signs. There were none, despite there being plenty of poles along the sides of the street.
Two other cars were parked on a yellow line, so I did the same and left. Unfortunately, the yellow line was ‘live’ until 6pm that day.
Half an hour later, my girlfriend appeared to tell me the Citroen C4 Cactus had been given a ticket. I was annoyed but, considering the importance of the meeting, decided that I'd have to live with it.
I returned to the car 30 minutes later and the car had gone. It didn’t take long to find out why: the RBKC towing bay was at the end of street. The Citroen had been lifted and shifted about 200 yards from an empty street.
Two minutes later, I was being asked for £265 to get the Citroen back. The chap in the queue in front of me was an RBKC resident trying to recover his Skoda Yeti. It had been towed the morning his resident permit expired. "Funny," he said to me. ‘"The council used to write to you and remind you of the expiry date."
The day after the car was towed, I went back to Lots Road to look for the ‘controlled zone’ signs that I had missed. You’ve already guessed that there was no sign when entering Lots Road, nor any along the length of the road.
Nor was there one at the west end of the road, right outside the RBKC towing pound. The only sign, heavily faded, was visible if approaching from another road - which would be unlikely, because it is not a through road.
I carefully appealed the ticket and received a letter of rejection (sent from ‘Transport and Technical Services’ 90 miles away in Worthing) in short order. The crux of the refusal was the claim that "the CPZ (Controlled Parking Zone) signs are not required to be on the entry points to each and every street".
More to the point, I was amazed that the Citroen had been towed, because it was in no way a traffic obstruction; the street was virtually empty and has very little through traffic.
That's where the Department for Transport’s guidance document comes in. It very clearly reinforces a number of important points. "Parking schemes are not allowed on a purely money-raising basis," it says. Detailed accounts for the schemes must be made public. And "enforcement authorities should run their CPE operations efficiently, effectively and economically".
On the subject of removing vehicles, the DfT document is also quite clear. "The Secretary of State is of the view that it should only be used in limited circumstances such as where the same vehicle repeatedly breaks parking restrictions and it has not been possible to collect payment for penalties, primarily because the keeper is not registered, or is not properly registered, with the DVLA. Where a vehicle is causing a hazard or obstruction, the enforcement authority should remove rather than immobilise. Immobilisation/removal activity should only take place where it gives clear traffic management benefits."
Of course, I would argue that an absence of CPZ signs in a street of bare poles is in breach of the DfT guidelines, and the old-school cash-only parking meters look suspiciously like another hurdle for drivers. And removing a car from an empty street must surely be in breach of the government guidance.
But the killer is the economics of RBKC’s car removal operations, which, remember, the government thinks should not run at a loss.
According to RBKC’s Annual Parking Report 2013-14, the borough made £102,000 from clamping and £1.34 million from removing cars from the side of the road. However, the operations cost a massive £1.89m, so the council ended up £441,000 in the red.
This must be the first ever case of highway robbery making a loss.