Clamping down on parking: If you park illegally and think you can get away with it, don't be so sure. Rhys Williams reports

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Park carelessly if you dare. From today responsibility for enforcing the capital's parking regulations switches from the Metropolitan Police to local authorities in the biggest clampdown on illegal parking the capital has yet seen.

The effect on the persistent offender could be devastating. Until now, motorists have been able to overrun on a meter or steal a resident's bay with relative impunity (or, at any rate, with a one in 50 chance of being caught).

Now they face an army of 1,200 attendants, decked out in snazzy uniforms, who will patrol the capital's meters, yellow lines and residents' bays in a determined bid to cut those cushy odds by at least a half - small comfort for the 54,830 people whose cars were clamped in London last year or the 72,048 who had them towed away.

The existing 1,500 traffic wardens employed by the Metropolitan Police will be left to concentrate on 'Red Routes' (in case anyone is worried about our yellow-banded friends losing their jobs).

Parking in London is a problem. There are something like 2.3 million car-owning households, while nearly half of the capital's working population commute by car or van. They have to squeeze into 208,000 regulated (residents' bays, meters, etc) spaces and a further 153,000 off-street public car parks.

With the number of cars expected to grow by at least 400,000 over the next 30 years, Nick Lester, director of the Parking Committee for London, says: 'By 2025, there will be a 50 per cent increase in the demand for on-street, overnight parking. Where that's going to come from, I have no idea.'

The true problem is not so much the nightly ruck for spaces in the West End. It is more to do with the fact that residents in suburban railheads, such as Chiswick, live with the perennial fear that if they move their car during the day, they will not find another space.

Any solution - for example, reducing demand for cars by spending more money on public transport - is long term. In the meantime, all the committee can do is prevent a free-for-all of the type which exists in European cities such as Rome or Paris.

Until today, parking restrictions in the capital were enforced by 1,500 traffic wardens. The system has proved, by and large, woefully inadequate, resulting, according to Mr Lester, in two to three times as many cars being illegally parked as legally.

Although wardens issued about 2 million tickets in their last full year (1992), one reason relatively few offenders were caught was that the pounds 60m raised annually in fines went to the Treasury, not the police.

With incentives like that, Mr Lester says: 'Parking enforcement was never going to be top of the priority list for using scarce resources.'

Under the new system, pioneered in US cities such as Chicago, the local authorities will assume sole responsibility for enforcing regulations on yellow lines, meters and residents' bays.

Uniformed parking attendants employed by each of 33 London boroughs will issue Penalty Charge Notices using hand-held computers to store registration details. Illegal parking will be decriminalised with fines treated as civil debts. Sums will vary according to location and speed of payment.

A pounds 30 ticket in central London will double unless it is paid within two weeks. Ditto for a pounds 20 penalty further out. The cost for release after clamping (pounds 38) and towing away (pounds 105) will both remain the same.

Although the task of measuring effectiveness begins today, Mr Lester says the experience of pilot schemes during the past year suggest the new regime can realise its goal of improved enforcement (civil-ese for 'more motorists nabbed') and increased compliance.

Using the information stored on their computers, an attendant can call in the clamping unit to a persistent offender or someone who has not paid their last few tickets. Motorists causing an obstruction, either in bus lanes or across drop kerbs, will be targeted for towing away.

Virtually every motorist in London has first-or second-hand experience of at least one 'totally, outrageous, unreasonable' clamping or removal.

News that the authorities now have a financial incentive will spread panic that a blitz is on the way. But at pounds 70,000 a throw, the evidence so far is that boroughs will use tow-trucks sparingly. The police operated 17 in Camden. The council now uses two.

'We want to deal with the people who park for 10 minutes in a bus lane during the rush hour. Those few people cause a disproportionate part of the congestion. It's an incredibly selfish act.'

With so much money at stake - it has been suggested that enforcement could be worth pounds 3bn - there may be concern that local authorities will use parking regulations as a way to make easy money. 'No, for two reasons,' Mr Lester affirms.

'Local authorities must restrict regulations to traffic issues such as congestion, access or pedestrian safety. Second, councils are limited by statute to spending any surplus they earn on additional car parking or improving public transport and roads.

The parking committee also has a policing role, overseeing attendants' training and issuing a code of practice. The guidelines include notes on identifying vehicles for clamping - for example, 'no vehicle is to be clamped unless illegally parked for 15 minutes.

One of the committee's key functions now the new scheme is up and running will be its appeals tribunal.

Complaints should always be intitially directed toward the relevant council. But if both sides refuse to cede, a motorist can go to the Parking Appeals Service, based at the parking committee's head office in Haymarket.

Arguably the most important regulator will be the councils themselves. If a council gets a little overzealous in enforcing regulations, successful appeals would surely follow, leading to a loss of income to the council.

Mr Lester believes that a more equitable, less arbitrary system of enforcement will emerge over time. That, at least, is the theory; the practice starts today.

(Photograph omitted)

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