Transport CommitteeWritten evidence from Derek Dishman (PE 33)

1. Introduction

My name is Derek Dishman. I write the Mr Mustard blog about Barnet Council which includes many examples of unjust parking tickets (penalty charge notices or PCN). I help friends to appeal their parking tickets with 10 cancelled so far and another 30 currently being appealed.

2. Hypocrisy

If we were to believe local authorities who say that parking tickets are intended to educate the public to park within the rules and that they would be happy if they didn’t issue a single ticket in a year then we have to conclude that they are, at best, failing in their aim and at worst, liars. Taking the London Borough of Barnet (“Barnet Council”) as an example they issue 150,000 parking tickets in a year.

3. Education

If councils don’t want to issue parking tickets then they should be educating the public about lawful and considerate parking practice which may have been forgotten since their driving test. There is plenty of money available and it could be spent on educating people in order to improve their parking for the benefit of all although that would lead to less revenue for the council and could be why it doesn’t happen.

Having asked Barnet Council about education I was told:

Tomorrow we will be leafleting the new Event Day (Saracens) Controlled Parking Zone, advising motorists of the new restrictions in place and how to avoid parking in contravention, and I am sure we have done similar when Controlled Parking Zones have been introduced in the past.

We do publicise what restrictions we enforce on our website however, I would advise that motorists are expected to understand and abide by the Highway Code (this is a condition in which their drivers (sic) licence is issued).

I do believe that when a Penalty Charge Notice has been issued must check the signage, ask themselves why they received said notice, consult the Highway Code and alter their parking habits from there.

So leaflets were only being issued on the very day that new unusual restrictions came into force and many residents ended up being ticketed as they didn’t know about the new rules coming into force that day.

Not many drivers from Barnet, let alone from the rest of the country, will consult the council website before their journey. The Highway Code is a quick guide to the main parking problems but is not comprehensive by any means.

I don’t think that being issued with a parking ticket is the best way of teaching people to comply as they may still not understand what they have done wrong. We need the parking ticket equivalent of Driver Improvement Courses that speeding drivers are offered.

4. Cash Cow

The current enforcement system is based upon expediency but once that is paired with a zero tolerance attitude in a council then it simply becomes a cash cow. The Barnet Council website says “We simply require that our officers, when on duty, issues penalties to vehicles observed in contravention.” Note that traffic wardens are required to issue a parking ticket, they have no discretion. This leads to the maximum number of parking tickets being issued and more money into the council’s coffers.

5. Guilty until Proven Innocent

Parking tickets are an area where you are guilty until proven innocent, and if the council are guilty of an error they don’t have to pay a penalty. I looked at a parking ticket where the sign was blacked out by a vandal which means that the pay parking bay cannot be enforced as the instructions on how to pay are obliterated and thus you can park for free. One lady did. She received a parking ticket and the photograph of the parking sign was taken on the other side of the road. This was described by Barnet Council when challenged by me as “an error” and “an oversight”. I suggested compensation of £60 (£30 if paid within 14 days) would be in order and the response from the parking process manager was “I have noted the request for compensation, and I would advise that an appropriate remedy has been applied in that the Penalty Charge Notice has now been cancelled as in line with our statutory obligation.” so the remedy offered by Barnet Council for being put at risk of having to pay £60 by an error, or as I suspect a bit of cheating, was that the lady who got the parking ticket did not have to pay it, which is no remedy at all. The lady did have to waste her time on the matter though. I think that parking tickets which are issued and then cancelled on grounds of mistake should lead to the innocent party being paid the same sum as the council demanded. This might make councils generally more careful in how they issue them.

6. All about the Money

What parking is really about is money. I refer you to Barnet’s Final v2.5 Business Case for the Future of the Parking service produced in November 11, just prior to the award of the contract for enforcement to a private company. This shows you (p124) that the budgeted income was £13.6 million and costs were £6 million leaving an expected surplus of £7.6 million, an appreciable sum.

7. Parking Subsidises Council Tax

Why this surplus is important to Barnet Council is that it is being relied on to keep Council Tax down. If you look at the budget figures for the year to 31 March 2013 then the Council Tax requirement (ie the amount to be collected from council tax payers) is £203,301,306 but this was after reducing it by the expected surplus on the Special Parking Account (“SPA”—excludes off street car parks) of £6,895,970 which is 3.4% of the Council Tax requirement. So were it not for parking tickets (the largest element of the SPA) a one-off Council Tax rise of 3.4% would be needed.

8. Parking Income is Targeted

Proof that parking ticket income is being relied upon is found in the attitude of Barnet Council to a drop in the forecast level of income. On 18 October 2012 Cabinet Resources Committee were presented with the 1st qtr 2012–13 figures (ie to 30 June 2012). There was a projected shortfall of £1.22 million in the SPA and rather than simply accepting that as a fact because the SPA is not meant to be a target or used to subsidise services, it was noted in the report that Parking Recovery Plans were being developed. I have been unable to get hold of a copy of the Parking Recovery Plan with my Freedom of Information Request having been deemed to be vexatious. A councillor who is not in the Cabinet has told me he isn’t being allowed to see it either as it is “commercially sensitive”. I therefore have to surmise that given that in the year ended 31 March 2012 the Special Parking Account income was made up of 10% from permits, 31% from paying to park on the street and 59% from parking tickets that there is going to be pressure on the enforcement contractor to issue more parking tickets and to collect a greater proportion of them.

9. Explosion of Income Over a Decade

Further demonstration of the way that the public is being abused is by comparing 2002 with 2012 and seeing what has happened in a decade. Allowing 48% for inflation in that decade the above inflation increase in revenue was 85% for parking tickets (are drivers almost twice as bad at parking now than they were 10 years ago or has enforcement been ramped up?) permits by 293% (the rise in car permits from £40 to £100 is mostly to blame—we were sold the CPZ scheme in Chipping Barnet in 1987 on the basis of it merely covering its costs) and paid for parking by 151% (mostly caused by a massive hike in March 2011 which is now slowly being partially reversed one town centre at a time as it turned out to have killed the golden goose).

10. Rationing to Help the High Street

How should parking be rationed? Currently the blunt instrument of price is being used. If a High Street has a shortage of parking then it could be rationed by the use of a variety of time limited bays. The bays which are right in the middle of the town centre could be for 15, 30 and 60 minutes and parking tickets could be issued for over-staying. As you get further away from the centre of town the bays could be for 2 hours or 4 hours up to all day and that would encourage shop-workers to park on the edge and walk in, thus leaving more space for shoppers. Barnet Council don’t want the expense of collecting cash and don’t now have a single coin operated parking meter and doing away with using money as a rationing medium avoids the perceived problem of the cost of cash collection.

11. Killing the High St & Pay by Phone

The council by their policy of extracting huge sums from car drivers are putting them off from visiting the High St, they go instead to shopping centres which have ample free parking or other high streets where free parking is still available.

12. Council Hinder Instead of Helping

If High Streets are to survive councils need to take positive steps to help them. The wholesale removal of cash parking meters was a killer blow which led to turnover falls of 30% to 40% for many traders at a time of recession. Barnet Council is rather unusual as a council in having decided to remove all of its coin operated parking meters in early 2012 and replace them with a pay by phone system (you could also pay at a paypoint shop if you knew where they were although you could easily get a parking ticket whilst you were doing that. You could buy a voucher at a library although they are not open at 8am when some parking restrictions start. You could find a business which sells Parking Vouchers although when I asked the council to give me a list of businesses selling these vouchers in East Finchley they were unable to tell me of a single business that did so). Pay-by-phone discriminates against the elderly who are less likely to have a mobile phone, the poor, the disabled, people with poor hearing who find using a phone in the street difficult, and the up to two million people who don’t have a bank account and thus can’t get a debit card or probably a credit card. They are simply told to pay by another method or park elsewhere. Welcome to Barnet!

13. The Return of Meters

Parking meters are now returning slowly to car parks in Barnet but they will only accept debit and credit cards. So this is an improvement as you will not have to have your valuable mobile phone on display in a public place against police advice. You can insert your payment card there and then into a slot and receive a ticket showing that you have paid which you place on the dashboard in time-honoured fashion. This is an improvement on recent poor provision of payment methods but still discriminates against the unbanked and the elderly many of whom much prefer cash for small transactions such as these. It also prevents coding error where you find that the vehicle registration number has been entered incorrectly on the pay-by-phone computer or that you have paid for the wrong bay and both of these events lead to parking tickets being needlessly issued and once issued the council are very reluctant to cancel them.

14. Money Talks

Further proof that parking is about revenue raising is that Barnet Council ran a pilot scheme in May 2012 to use a CCTV equipped car for enforcement. Notes from the regular meetings between the outsourced provider of parking enforcement for the council, NSL Ltd, and officers of the council include that they needed to find the most feasible location for the car to visit and that having monitored four to five schools (presumably for breaching parking on zigzags) they observed only 1 contravention. The conclusion was “Cost does not justify means” which tells us most emphatically that it is all about the money.

15. CCTV

The statutory guidance on parking enforcement from the Secretary of State for Transport issued on 28 February 2008 states in respect of approved devices, which are ones used without a Civil Enforcement Officer (“CEO”) being present at the scene, “the Sec of State recommends that approved devices are used only where enforcement is difficult or sensitive and CEO enforcement is not practical.” How that allows Haringey Council to enforce parking by cctv in a parking bay in the perfectly safe and easily patrolled Hornsey High Street is hard to see. The same question arises in Turner St, Tower Hamlets, London E1 where a lady asked a passing traffic warden if she was OK to park there using her blue badge (the London hospital is adjacent) and he said yes. She then received eight parking tickets across 10 days (she had been visiting her terminally ill brother) and she did not know about the earliest ticket until after the last one was issued. Seven tickets were issued by camera and the eighth by a traffic warden on foot which rather ruins their argument that the location cannot be enforced on foot because it is “busy”. If the traffic warden was issuing the tickets she would have known she was in the wrong on day 1. People regard parking tickets issued by CCTV as very big brother and this turns the citizen against the state.

16. If the Council makes an Error...

In 2008 the legislation about Penalty Charge Notices changed and the wording on them should have changed. On six occasions in the last 12 months the independent adjudicator (PATAS—Parking and Traffic Appeals Service) has cancelled Barnet PCN for this very reason. Given that the wrong wording renders the PCN invalid I cannot see any reason why the council do not cancel every currently outstanding wrongly worded parking ticket and refund all the ones that were paid when the wording was incorrect (many people pay up for a quiet life and don’t have the time, the knowledge or the inclination to argue). The only reason I can think of is that the council is desperate to hang on to its ill-gotten gains. It rather sticks in the craw when the public are expected to stick to the rules and get a parking ticket if they are a single minute beyond the paid for time, or an inch outside of the parking bay, and yet the council blithely ignore their own wrong-doings.

17. Judge and Jury

There are three possible chances of appeal regarding a parking ticket affixed to your windscreen. The first is an informal one within 28 days of receiving the parking ticket. This is decided upon by the council. The problem is that if they exercise discretion in favour of the motorist the council then has less money in its coffers. The temptation is to reject the informal approach, I have seen the identical argument then used at the formal stage (once the Notice to Owner has been issued) and be accepted. The only way to ensure that the council are impartial is to remove the financial incentive from councils to issue tickets. I know Localism is paramount but the revenue needs to go to a central pot to stop the council using motorists as a cash cow. Of course bad parking needs to be discouraged, or even better encourage good parking by educating motorists, but I cannot think of a time in my 25 years in Barnet, and I have travelled extensively for business, that I was prevented from proceeding by a badly parked car. You might say this means that parking enforcement is working but the stick isn’t leading to a solution if there are 150,000 parking tickets a year in Barnet alone.

18. Clamping and Vehicle Removal

Luckily we don’t have these in Barnet (except removal of abandoned vehicles) and it strikes me that these are disproportionate remedies for minor contraventions. Clamping has been outlawed on private land and the same should now follow for local authorities. Removal should be allowed only where there is real physical obstruction of traffic flow and should be a rare event.

19. CPZ Entry Signs

Controlled parking zones were only ever expected to be an area of a few streets but have exploded in size. From my house in Chipping Barnet to one edge of the zone, where the times of operation are on a pair of large signs, is over a mile. If someone misses the signs on the way to my road there is no way of knowing the times of operation of single yellow lines which do not have to be time plated if the entire zone has signs at the entry points. It may be that the traffic was very heavy at the edge of the zone and the driver was concentrating, as they should, on the road and not trying to read a sign which said, say, “Mon–Fri 8am–6.30pm, Sat 9am–6pm, Sun 9am–5pm”. The option of CPZ entry signs to remove the necessity to time plate every location should be removed in the interests of absolute clarity at the point of parking and on road safety grounds.

20. The Appeal Process

The current process takes to long and has too many stages. A penalty of £110 for a higher-level contravention (1 minute on a single yellow is enough) is an excessive penalty for the contravention and is 17 hours pay at the minimum wage. The option to pay 50% within 14 days discriminates against the poor who might have to wait until at least the next pay day to try and pay. The blanket refusal of payment by instalments is also unfair. A motorist admits their error and wants to pay £10 a week. They are refused and then the £110 goes up to £165, which I regard as an excessive penalty for non-payment, and then they are sent to the County Court to be registered as a debtor and then bailiffs are instructed and can clamp the motorist’s car or take goods from the home. The amount owed, with bailiff’s charges, will soon be up to £500 which is patently unreasonable.

Here is a possible timetable as things stand now:

Day 1—Receive PCN
by day 29 sent in informal appeal
by day 43 (in theory) get rejected
by day 180 receive Notice to Owner
by day 208 send in formal appeal
by day 266 get rejected
by day 294 appeal to PATAS
by about 330 have PATAS hearing

So that is nearly a year of anxiety over an alleged parking contravention. Is this really the way people should be treated?

I think that there should be only one charge level and it should be much more modest. There shouldn’t be the 50% discount for paying within 14 days as that tempts people to pay even when they are innocent of any error. There should only be two appeals, the first one to the council and the second one to PATAS all on a vastly speeded up timetable. This could mainly be achieved by the Notice to Owner having to be issued within 60 days rather than 180.

21. What the Motorist has to put up with

I attach a list of eight sample cases showing unhelpful or pedantic behaviour by councils which needs to be curbed in some way.

March 2013

Prepared 22nd October 2013