You've seen the Pavilion? Now visit the pound: The sight of a vehicle hoisted in the air is familiar to Brighton residents, writes Rosie Millard. But what is it like to confront the owner?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THERE'S no denying it, pounds 105 is rather a lot of money. Especially when it's a fine for retrieving your towed-away car; especially when you only left it on a single yellow line so that you could hurry down to Brighton's dazzling Palace Pier and be the first to see the sea.

However, Brighton is a town with narrow streets and a lot of traffic, and proper parking rules must be obeyed. More parking tickets are issued in the Sussex resort per traffic warden employed than anywhere in the country, and for the past seven years the sight of cars being lifted on to tow trucks has been as familar as the minarets on the Pavilion.

Visitors, though, do not always take kindly to such civic zealotry. According to Mia Saunders, the manager of the Brighton and Hove Car Pound, 'people will do and say anything to get away with not paying. They come walking up here to collect their car from the pound with a funny look on their face and you know you are going to be in for some aggro.

'I've been called all the names under the sun. I've had bricks and chairs chucked at me. I've been threatened with a Krooklok, and people have tried to run me down,' she says, from behind a sheet of bullet-proof glass. 'When I first started here, I didn't think I'd last the abuse. Have they ever made me cry? No. They should have parked legally.'

Barbed wire surrounds the hut in which Ms Saunders sits to face the public. Electronic devices release and lock the doors; the handles have been replaced several times because of people wrenching them off in rage. Large, highlighted signs are pinned on the wall: 'On no account allow any member of the public inside the hut, even to use the telephone.' The lone chair in the public area has gone; it ended its life being hurled through a window.

Ms Saunders joined Arcade Motors, which runs the pound for Brighton Police, after leaving school at 16. She has now been with the company for two years. Talking to her, one can hardly believe she is still in her teens. 'I have an answer for everything,' she says.

Throughout the day walkie-talkies in the hut crackle with news of illegally parked cars across Brighton. Each time, an Arcade Motors lifting truck speeds out in response. Ten minutes later it's back, swinging a Rover, a Fiesta, or a Susuki Jeep aloft in its cradle. The electronic doors of the pound close behind it, and Ms Saunders and her staff must wait for 10 minutes, or two hours, or seven hours for the irate owner to come swinging round the corner in a state of carless fury.

As soon as they get inside the hut and up to the glass, they receive the dismal news. 'That is pounds 105, please. How are you going to pay?' At this point, the car-owners tend to go for one of three options: they pay up straight away, they become weepy, or they become extremely abusive. The only acceptable option is the first. 'That's pounds 105, please,' says Ms Saunders. She and her colleagues go on saying this until the person pays up. It will be one of 200 such confrontations each week.

'But I can't pay]' wails Ballab Pradhan, in Brighton for the day from neighbouring Lewes, who foolishly parked in a Disabled Bay, apparently without seeing the large 'Disabled' sign hanging from a plaque on an adjacent lamppost. Ms Saunders has heard it all before: ' pounds 105 before you can collect your car.' 'This is blackmail,' says Mr Pradhan. ' pounds 105, please,' says Ms Saunders. 'How dare you? I'm not from around here] I have no money]' says Mr Pradhan, head in his hands. It looks like he might begin to cry.

' pounds 105, please,' she repeats. Her face has assumed a basilisk-like expression. Eventually, he delves into his pocket and produces pounds 105. Ms Saunders's expression remains unaltered. Mr Pradhan goes off to collect his car. In two minutes he is back in the hut. 'What's this?' he screams, waving his receipt. 'Parking fine,' she says flatly. 'An extra pounds 20. You have 20 days to pay.'

The range of largely unsuccessful excuses is wide: 'I live here', 'I wasn't causing any obstruction', 'A puddle obscured the yellow line,' 'I have chronic diarrhoea and had to get to the chemist'. They are all referred to Brighton Police station. Refunds do occur, in cases of 'genuine mistake', but they are rare.

Other people don't bother with excuses; they simply attempt to smash their car through the locked gates. Or they just abandon their car in the pound. 'I'm going to leave my Polo here,' announces Sam McAllister. 'I can't afford pounds 105, and anyway I'm off to Ibiza tomorrow on holiday.'

He is allowed to collect bits and pieces from his car. Strangely, he returns holding a windscreen scraper, which, as he is now a pedestrian, is presumably a fairly redundant possession. Ms Saunders lets him pass without comment. His car will be a block of scrap in a few days' time.

It would appear that faced with having to accept responsibility for breaking the law, and therefore a fairly large fine, the British public tends to degenerate into a state of geriatric collapse, or regress to childish insolence.

'Are you the owner of this vehicle?' asks Pam Goodman, the pound receptionist, of a middle-aged man. 'Got the fucking keys, haven't I?,' he snarls. She behaves as if nothing more has been said than a mere affirmative: ' pounds 105, please.' The man slams a Visa card down and goes to collect his car, furious that his aggression has been so impotent. On leaving the pound, he spits at the window of the hut. A large gob of spittle drools down the pane. 'You bitches]' he screams as he drives off.

'I was advised about the abuse,' says Ms Goodman, who has worked at the pound for three months. 'But we are told what to say. Anyway, I used to work for BT and before then I was working in a pub, so I'm pretty used to it.' She gestures towards the window. 'I'll wipe that off before I leave.' 'People say the most awful things to us,' says Ms Saunders, 'such as 'I hope you drop dead with a disease', as well as calling us every name possible. It doesn't bother me.'

Confrontations with the public have included dealing with a nudist whose car was towed from Brighton's naturist beach and who came to retrieve it dressed only in a towel. 'He was quite good- natured, really, especially when we asked for ID, as he literally had nothing on him.'

Ms Saunders says she has learnt a lot sitting in the hut for 12-hour stretches: 'How to cope with constant abuse. The way people will try anything to get one over you - especially when they see me. They think they can get away with it because I'm young and female. I've toughened up since I've been here. I'm much harder. The other day I was walking home and someone recognised me. He shouted across the road at me. He said: 'There's that bitch from the car pound]' '

Other incidents have proved rather less amusing: one man wanted by the police turned up to collect his car at night, when they were alone in the office. 'He started punching the screen, then began to pick up bricks to throw at the window,' says Ms Goodman. 'He demanded to go to his car. 'No, sir, you cannot take your car away,' I told him.' By this stage, four police cars were surrounding the pound. 'They came in and arrested him. It turned out that he was armed and dangerous. And they had left me to stand up to him alone. I must say, I felt a bit shaky all night after that one.'

The stress can take its toll. 'I try to switch off completely as soon as I walk out of the gates,' says Ms Saunders. 'I just go home and try to wind down by watching a bit of telly; and then fall into bed, usually very early. I sleep very deeply.

'Still, I never tell people what I do. I just say I'm in traffic management.'

(Photograph omitted)

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