The annoying ticket wrapped in cellophane that you find under the windscreen wiper of the car you parked in a strange town just might be a council official's cunning way of reducing the impact of government cuts.
As the Government reduces councils' funding, threatening local services, traffic wardens are out in greater numbers while free parking spaces are harder to find, Freedom of Information figures have shown. The result is that millions of fines are making a nice little earner for councils. While other council services are stretched and police are facing cuts in manpower, the number of traffic wardens – or Civil Enforcement Officers, to give them their correct title – is rising. Today there are 6 per cent more officers than in 2008 and one council in 10 has enlarged its battalion of traffic wardens by at least a fifth.
At the same time, 17 per cent of councils have increased the number of paid parking zones, cutting back the number of free parking spaces, according to figures obtained by the motor insurance firm LV. The volume of traffic has been increasing over the years until this spring, when a combination of wet weather and high fuel prices helped bring it down slightly. There are an estimated 36 million drivers, 15 per cent more than there were 10 years ago.
More than half – 57 per cent – of drivers said that parking in their nearest town and city has become more difficult since 2008, with only 7 per cent saying it is now easier. Nearly one in five admitted to resorting to parking illegally and risking a fine as a result over the past year. One motorist in 10 has had a parking fine in the past 12 months, earning local councils £532m – an average of £96 from each driver they have caught.
There are now 20 officers on average employed by each council in England and Wales – or 58 in the average London borough. In Westminster, there are 242, the highest number in the country. Local Government Minister Bob Neill said: "There is no excuse for town halls using parking fines and motorists as cash cows. There are plenty of other ways for councils to raise extra income or make savings like better procurement and sharing back-office services.
"We want to see councils use parking to support the high street and help their local shops prosper. That's why we have ended the last government's requirements to limit spaces, push up parking charges and encourage aggressive parking enforcement."
John O'Roarke, managing director of LV, said: "The lack of free parking is putting increasing pressure on cash-strapped motorists and many are resorting to parking illegally."