Select Committee on Transport Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)

WEDNESDAY 7 DECEMBER 2005

MR NICK LESTER, CLLR DANNY CHALKLEY, CLLR TONY PAGE, MR ANDY VAUGHAN AND CLLR RICHARD KNASEL

  Q100  Mrs Ellman: Should there be time limits and more specific performance requirements on how councils deal with representations?

  Mr Lester: In practice, there are. The adjudicators have set out time limits and if people appeal a case and time limits are breached, the adjudicators will normally expect an explanation as to why those time limits have been breached. In some cases there are statutory time limits. In private legislation in London, for example, we brought in a time limit for issuing a notice to owner so that if it is more than six months after the event then it is no longer lawful to issue a notice to owner.

  Q101  Mrs Ellman: Could I ask Cllr Page on behalf of the LGA, in general terms would you agree with that?

  Cllr Page: I would, certainly. I think there probably is a need for some greater clarity, and this may come through the guidance, as to the issue which was raised earlier from the previous witnesses about whether or not the discount period applied once you had written in. There is some evidence of confusion, not only amongst the public but also amongst some local authority officers about this point. I think clearly if you write in and appeal then you should still be given that same length of discount period once the correspondence has been finalised and clearly that is an issue which I think requires some further guidance.

  Q102  Mrs Ellman: Should drivers be compensated if they have been incorrectly issued?

  Mr Lester: I think in many cases the parking attendant will not know about the explanation or the circumstances surrounding the vehicle at the time the ticket is issued. If, for example, you have got a van parked on a yellow line at the foot of a tower block, the attendant will not know if the van has just been left there parked or if the driver is delivering to the top floor or not, and it would be unreasonable to expect the attendant to know. It would also be unreasonable to expect the attendant to wait around for maybe twenty minutes to find out if the driver came back or not. They do have a normal guidance of five minutes for observation in those circumstances. So the ticket in that case may be quite properly issued and subsequently the driver or the owner will write in and say they actually were delivering to the seventeenth floor, it was time-consuming, and the ticket will then quite properly be cancelled. I think in those circumstances the suggestion that there should be any compensation would be wholly unreasonable.

  Cllr Page: My own authority has a parking appeals panel, which has the authority to recommend compensation. So far a case has not arisen where a recommendation has been made, but theoretically that could be made if a case is made, and I certainly would see no problem with that being more widespread. Certainly the involvement of elected members should not preclude them being able to recommend payment of compensation if circumstances so arose.

  Q103  Mrs Ellman: So has compensation been paid anywhere in the country?

  Cllr Page: I do not know.

  Mr Lester: Yes, there have been cases that I am aware of. They are limited in number and they do occur where the process has wholly failed, has wholly broken down in councils. Similarly, the adjudicators do award costs where councils have acted wholly unreasonably, but it is limited in numbers. Certainly it is interesting to see from the adjudicators' statistics that they award costs less often than they refuse claims for costs because in the majority of cases they do not believe that the council has acted wholly unreasonably. In lots of cases issues come down to one person's word against another, and how do you decide? One person's decision could be different from another person's decision. In cases at appeal, appellants will regularly bring forward more information at appeal than was available to the council at the time they decided on the initial representations. It would be quite unreasonable, I think, to penalise councils for rejecting cases in those instances where the decision to allow an appeal is based wholly on information which has come to light later on.

  Q104  Mrs Ellman: What about more discretion to parking attendants on issuing and cancelling tickets?

  Mr Vaughan: Manchester learned from history really in terms of this issue and we have had the approach of having no discretion for parking attendants, of trying to set policy in ivory towers for all circumstances, and we have realised, I think, the error of our ways. I think we need to train staff, to empower staff and to trust staff to take responsible decisions.

  Q105  Chairman: Did you train them, Mr Vaughan? I am not clear whether you trained them or whether you gave instructions to the contractors.

  Mr Vaughan: Both. I think it is a key point that again one of the lessons we learned is you cannot outsource the responsibility for this service and it is really crucial. This is a council service and our contractors also share council values and council philosophies, so the training is a joint training with the Council and our contractor delivering it together. But I do recognise that Manchester is a little different from a number of councils in taking this view, but it is our view that we need to have discretion where it is most appropriate and that is throughout the whole process rather than separating it and then only allowing discretion in the back office. I think that happens in reality anyway and this is a matter of Manchester just being open, honest and transparent about its approach. So absolutely, and again it is a cornerstone of Manchester's reasonable and proportionate approach.

  Q106  Mrs Ellman: Mr Lester, the Association of London Government has a different view on this?

  Mr Lester: Well, I think there is a range of policy options as to where discretion is applied. It is essential that discretion is applied at all the processing stages, but on the street there is a balance to be struck between the degree of discretion which is allowed to attendants not to issue or to issue tickets and the fact that they are also susceptible to threats, both violence and corruption.

  Q107  Chairman: Does that happen then, Mr Vaughan? Tell me what you think.

  Mr Vaughan: No, and I think in reality if you are going to get a thump on the nose, regardless of what someone says in the office you are going to exercise discretion in any event and this is a matter of being transparent in what we have achieved.

  Q108  Chairman: So more attendants were not attacked, more corruption was not discovered. Was there a series of complaints from the contractors and from the people doing the job about these problems?

  Mr Vaughan: No, and I think that the feedback I have received will be anecdotal from parking attendants, which is, "Actually this is about valuing our role as a profession, trusting us to make reasonable judgments," and it was one of the criticisms Manchester received from the former Traffic Warden Service before we decriminalised, that a traffic warden would exercise discretion and parking attendants would not. Well, it is our view that parking attendants should, and parking attendants welcome that.

  Q109  Mr Martlew: We have already mentioned the issue of the 50% discount, but surely there is an unfairness? It often happens that somebody will come along and take the ticket off and by the time they actually get the notice they have no opportunity to pay the discount. Is there a fairness in that?

  Mr Lester: If that genuinely happens, there is a problem, but I think it must be up to individual cases to be decided if people make that claim. I am certainly aware that about four or five years ago there was a small café in Brixton and there was a little sign on the counter which said, "If you get a parking ticket, claim you never received it and then you'll get off." So you have to judge each claim as it comes through to see if you think it is right or not.

  Cllr Chalkley: That is really where the benefit of digital cameras comes in, if you can evidence the fact that somebody has been issued with a PCN and that is evidence as being on their vehicle—

  Q110  Mr Martlew: Sorry, can I stop you on that? If the chap puts it on the windscreen and somebody comes around 10 minutes later and takes it off, there is no evidence from the digital camera, is there—only that he put it on, not that somebody else came along and took it off?

  Mr Lester: You have to judge on the evidence and if somebody writes in on every single occasion they get the ticket and they have never actually received it, then you might wonder whether they are wholly truthful on every occasion. If it is somebody where it is the first time you have ever had any correspondence from them, or maybe they have paid other tickets in the past without question, then there may be more evidence for believing the case they are making.

  Q111  Mr Martlew: We have already heard from the earlier witnesses that there is a belief that overstaying by 10 minutes is not as serious an offence as parking on a double yellow line. Do you believe there should be variable fines?

  Mr Lester: We have actually done a technical study into the possibilities of differential penalties. What the study found was that it would be relatively straightforward, although to an element subjective, to have differential penalties for different categories of offence such as a higher penalty for double yellow lines as opposed to overstaying on a meter. It is much harder to deal with short and long overstays because the issue is when were they actually discovered. You do not know how long they stayed there, all you know is when the attendant came round. It is not an instant calculation, so it is a bit harder to do that fairly.

  Q112  Mr Martlew: The issue which often comes to light is when an authority goes through the system you are talking about, the traffic orders and the signage are not correct. Do you actually believe that before you decriminalise you should actually do an audit? Are you sure that that happens with the local authorities?

  Cllr Page: Yes.

  Mr Lester: It is very clear it should happen, but the problems are often about what happens subsequently. Yellow lines get worn away. They start off pristine and complete and at some point you have to take the decision that it is no longer good enough. What is very clear is that where the signs and the lines are inadequate then the adjudicators will throw out any tickets issued. The signs, of course, are those prescribed by the Government, we do not have any choice in the signs which can be used, but if they are not there, if they have been knocked out by a lorry or something like that then the regulation becomes unenforceable.

  Q113  Mr Martlew: So you would support regular auditing of these then?

  Mr Lester: I think it is essential that it be regular. Whether it should be every year, as was suggested in the earlier session, I think that is quite an effort, but there is clearly support for regular auditing.

  Q114  Mr Martlew: So if that was to be laid down by Government you would support it?

  Cllr Page: I would certainly support the Government also looking at the whole issue of clarity of signage because there is a problem at local level. In the area I represent in Reading we have had a series of adjudications from the NPAS in the last few months, three adjudications in the same area saying that the signs are legal and three adjudications saying the signs are illegal. This has caused us to say to the Department for Transport, "We think there is a problem somewhere else and you need to sort this out," and I think from talking to colleagues there is a problem elsewhere which has arisen.

  Q115  Chairman: Are we talking about the roads controlled by the council or roads controlled by the Government?

  Cllr Page: We are talking about the public highway but the signage of parking restrictions is laid down in great detail by the Department for Transport and Mr Lester can comment in much more detail about the travails of dealing with that.

  Q116  Mr Martlew: Perhaps the representative from Westminster will have some sympathy with the situation where you have an area, a beautiful street, and unfortunately the signage is ugly. Is there any discretion on areas which are listed?

  Mr Lester: No, none at all.

  Cllr Page: No.

  Q117  Mr Martlew: Should there be?

  Mr Lester: I think it is a tricky balance to strike because on the one hand we are under a lot of pressure from people like English Heritage and the urban conservation movements to reduce the number of signs; on the other hand the motorists are saying there should be more signs and clearer. So there is a balance to be struck there. I think it would be very difficult to have differential signing in different areas because motorists would not know what to look for.

  Cllr Chalkley: 76% of Westminster is covered by a Conservation Area and there are clearly competing demands there. Nick has just covered it. Motorists want clear signage and Westminster wants less street clutter.

  Q118  Chairman: It does actually bring us to the whole question of the high proportion of appeals which the councils do not actually contest, because particularly on the business of signing I rather understood that one of the ways in which local councils could use the surplus money they raised was in doing things like maintaining their general street furniture in the sense that this would clarify the situation. Is that not so?

  Mr Lester: It is only with the Traffic Management Act that councils have been able to use parking surpluses for highway maintenance, so that is in the last year. Before that, maintenance was not an allowable expenditure.

  Q119  Chairman: Tell me about appeals. Why do so many councils not contest appeals?

  Mr Lester: I think there is a number of reasons why councils will not contest appeals. In some cases the appellant will produce more evidence at the appeal stage and the council will say to itself, "Well, if only they'd told us this in the first place we would have allowed the representation."


 
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