Charges related to car parking rising and leading to serious money woes

Going down the wrong road: parking fines are nudging people into debt difficulties

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The Independent Online

People with debt problems are used to struggling with credit card payments and utility bills – but another item is now, unexpectedly, appearing on the list of creditors.

The charity National Debtline has seen a surge in the number of clients who have difficulty satisfying demands for car parking fines.

Even though the proportion of debtors with this problem is not huge – now nudging 6 per cent of the National Debtline client list – it has risen dramatically from the 1.3 per cent that was registering just four years ago. The analysis coincides with the announcement of government plans to force local authorities to publish information, starting in early November, on the income they receive from parking fines. Local Government minister Kris Hopkins revealed the move, speaking of protecting “residents from the risk of being treated as cash cows by trigger-happy town hall traffic wardens” and exposing “councils using parking policies in an unlawful way”.

Enforcement of parking violations appears to vary considerably by location. Moving from Wandsworth to Bristol has saved Beth (not her real name) about £800 a year in parking fines.

“I don’t think that £800 a year is unusual in Wandsworth,” she says. “I have a lot of friends who were also paying that kind of amount. In Wandsworth, parking attendants knew where the hotspots were and they would wait around them.” Dennis Hussey, an adviser at National Debtline, confirms that London has a disproportionately higher incidence of problems on parking fines than anywhere else in the country, adding: “There are flash points in the high density shopping and living areas which catch people out.”

The costs of parking average £1 an hour in England, according to the British Parking Association (BPA). It estimates that some 20 per cent of drivers will also get a penalty charge notice each year. Amounts vary from borough to borough – but many locations offer a 50 per cent discount if the fines are paid within two weeks. The London Borough of Barnet applies this system, charging full penalties of between £60 and £110 for parking misdemeanours and £130 for bus lane contraventions.

Receiving a so-called Penalty Charge Notice (PCN) for parking presents particular problems, says an adviser for CAP, the charity Christians Against Poverty which offers free debt advice. “There is no option to pay in instalments, if you cannot afford the fine,” says a spokesman. “Non-payment proceeds automatically to enforcement, with any accompanying fees, and then bailiffs are sent out.” National Debtline says that a penalty of under £100 can be inflated into a bill of several hundred pounds, when bailiffs fees are added in. But the charity believes that some bailiffs overstate the figure, possibly in order to get quicker results.

People who want to appeal against parking charges can use two appeals procedures offered through the Parking and Traffic Appeals Service (for London) and the Traffic Penalty Tribunal (for the rest of England and Wales). In 2012-13, the service decided nearly 58,000 cases, finding in favour of drivers in 49 per cent of cases. The driver also got a positive result in 49 per cent  of the PCN appeals decided by the tribunal, in the 16,700 appeals it examined in 2011-12, the latest year for which it has published statistics.

Regarding parking charges themselves, rather than fines, the BPA believes that the forces of competition and pressure from central government are acting as brakes. But the landscape is changing. For instance, many councils are facing the prospect of rebuilding multi-storey car parks which date back to the 1960s and 1970s and which are now near the end of their lives.

 Another development is the prospect of workplace charging, introduced by Nottingham two years ago. Employers in the city who provide 11 or more parking spaces have to pay £362 a year per space.

Nottingham has received “inquiries from a number of other UK local authorities who are considering if a WPL [Workplace Parking Levy] is right for their area”.

The Mayor of London is exploring the issue.

Case study: ‘Jenny’

My partner and I were driving around in Yorkshire in a Fiat 500 we had hired for a reunion with my sisters. Going through Bradford for a couple of hours cost us dear. We left with three fines, for speeding, violating a bus lane and parking. As we had hired the car, there was also an admin fee of £89 – so we had to pay £180 altogether. My partner has some debts which he is paying off so I took all the fines and the speeding points. I don’t resent paying but it would have stressed him out a lot to have had those costs, too. Times have been harder since then. One of my sisters owes me £5,000 and hasn’t been able to pay me. We are too nervous about money to have a reunion next year. And we will stay away from Bradford for a while.

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