Car Wars: Meter misery in a parking maze: Oliver Gillie sees conflicting rules create a cautionary tale of two boroughs

IN THE HEART of Covent Garden, where two London boroughs meet, lies a trap for unwary drivers. Every day unlucky shoppers and business people have their cars removed and every night confused theatre and opera-goers end their evening in misery at Camden car pound two miles away.

The London boroughs of Camden and Westminster, the two boroughs most frequented by visiting shoppers and tourists, now have different parking restrictions and where their borders meet in Shelton Street, Covent Garden, there is a jungle of perplexing and conflicting regulations.

One of the greatest traps for motorists going to Covent Garden is the new rule that forbids parking on an out-of-order meter. This regulation is being brought in by a few central London boroughs as they convert to electronic meters in order to remove the advantage that can be gained from sabotaging the instruments. Streetwise city motorists know the new rule, but others are caught everyday.

Last Thursday, the Independent observed parking meters at Camden council's end of Endell Street - the other end is in Westminster - between 8.30am and 8.30pm, the hours during which parking is restricted. Three out of seven meters in that section of the street were defective at the start of the day. Two of these have been constantly out of order over the last six weeks, Jessica Skippon, a co- ordinator for the Covent Garden Community Association, said.

Car after car pulled in at the defective meters all day and, after reading the out-of-order notice, most pulled away again. Many puzzled over the notice, reading and re-reading it, looking at the street notices and reading the next door meters, searching desperately for the meaning. A few looked carefully up and down the street for attendants before taking a chance and setting off briskly to do their business.

At 9.15am a red Vauxhall Cavalier pulled in at one of the defective meters. The driver, a man, tried to put some money in, read the meter and tried again. A warden sauntered past and looked in a shop window, saying nothing until the man asked him for information. After being told it was a no- go area the man pulled away. But on several occasions attendants and on one occasion a policeman observed cars park illegally without warning the drivers that they risked being towed or clamped.

All morning people pulled in and out of the defective meter bays. Only one woman, driving a French registered left-hand drive Golf, stayed long enough to be given a ticket by a council warden. At 1.30pm a man from Camden council mended two of the broken meters, but not the defective meter at which he had parked.

But by 3.10pm one of the two meters was out of order again. The timing was convenient - in the next few minutes towaway trucks began to circulate the area.

The first car taken was an olive- green Volkswagen Golf which parked at 4.45pm at the meter left unmended by the engineer. In a few minutes an unmarked police car, a red Peugeot 405 driven by a man in plain clothes, pulled up opposite on a double yellow line as if he knew exactly where the defective meter was.

A uniformed officer sitting in the passenger seat began to write out a ticket. At 4.59pm the officer crossed the street and put the ticket under the windscreen wiper of the green Golf. Within 30 seconds the towaway truck pulled up and in two minutes the Golf was attached to the hoist and put onto the lorry. It had only been gone a minute when its owner returned, hailed a taxi and pursued the truck to the car pound.

A few minutes later a grey Ford Sierra moved into one of the two bays, which were evidently being targeted by the red Peugeot, and a Landrover into the other. They both thought better of it and pulled away again a minute later.

At 5.30pm a Renault 5 parked at one of the defective meters and a Volkswagen convertible driven by David Bowles, 20, from Ilford, parked at the other across the road. With Mr Bowles were two friends, Patrick Marchant, 23, and Maxine Graves, 18, also from Ilford. They tried to put money in the meter but it would not accept it. They lowered the convertible's roof and at 5.37pm walked off.

Three minutes later the red Peugeot 405 cruised by and in another minute at 5.41pm it returned and parked up the street. Within a minute the towaway truck came past - but it was premature. The ticket evidently was not ready - so, without stopping, the truck went off again round the block.

Four minutes later the policeman emerged once more from the red Peugeot, ticket in hand, but the owner of the Renault, who must have sensed the danger, had returned. With only seconds to spare she drove her car into the next space which was conveniently available. Now within the law, she left the policeman standing helplessly for a moment with the useless ticket hanging in his hand as the towaway truck appeared - this time on queue. But seeing the empty space, the truck took off again round the block.

Undeterred the policeman returned to his car and as he did so a white Peugeot pulled up next to the defective meter bay vacated by the lucky Renault. But the policeman's eyes were on the Volkswagen convertible over the road.

Four minutes later he had written out another ticket and this time the act was perfectly co- ordinated. He placed the ticket on the Volkswagen and within seconds the towaway truck was in position. In two minutes, they had the car in the air.

Six minutes later at 6.01pm, a red Vauxhall Cavalier moved into the same bay. The police in the Peugeot had gone, but a Camden council warden came by at 6.30pm and left tickets on five or six cars in the street. The Cavalier's driver, like most of the others, did not realise that Camden's parking restrictions carry on until 8.30pm. She returned to check her car and realising the danger moved off, lucky to get only a ticket.

The theatre crowd, eager not miss the beginning of the performance, then arrived in a flood. Car after car pulled in and out of the doomed bays. Some stayed and happy couples went off arm in arm for their evening out not dreaming they would likely end it in the car pound. First among the evening's visitors to the pound was David Bowles and his friends who returned at 7.30pm to find their Volkswagen gone.

'I was willing to put money in the meter,' he said. 'If it's out of order that should be their problem not mine. Why should I be towed away?'

At 7.58pm with only 32 minutes left before restrictions ended, the red Peugeot returned once more. In rapid succession a Fiat Strada, a Toyota MR2 and a BMW 918i were lifted from the ground. Their crime was to be on an expired meter in Camden between 6.30pm and 8.30pm.

The last to go, a Renault 11, was lifted at 8.23pm, with just seven minutes to spare.

Suddenly all was quiet. The red Peugeot and the towaway trucks were heading for Westminster where, until 10.30pm, there was still business to be done towing away cars parked in residents' bays and on double yellow lines.

Drinkers at the pub on Endell Street returned to normal conversation at the tables on the pavement. The car wars in Endell Street were over for another day.

BORDERLINE CASE TRAPS THE UNWARY

ON THE side of Covent Garden's Shelton Street in the London borough of Camden, the double yellow line means free parking between 8.30pm and 8.30am. On the other side, in the borough of Westminster, it means no parking at any time.

In Westminster there is free parking on meters after 6.30pm, but on the Camden side, free parking does not begin until after 8.30pm. To add to the confusion, Camden allows visitors to park in residents' bays after 8.30pm, whereas Westminster reserves the bays for residents until 10.30pm.

The confusion in Shelton Street is compounded by a notice of Camden's new restrictions, which has been placed inadvertently on the wrong side of the street - in Westminster. And for anyone parking in Endell Street, which crosses the boundary of the two boroughs, a look in the wrong direction at a notice in the other borough may lead them to conclude that it is safe to park when it is not.

Lying in wait for the unwary motorist is an army of enforcing officials. Yellow-hatted traffic wardens are under police control, there are also red-hatted parking attendants employed by Camden and blue-hatted attendants employed by Westminster. In addition, police parking-enforcement cars patrol the area, backed up by towaway trucks and clampers.

The red hats and blue hats dispense tickets costing up to pounds 30 for using excess time on a meter, and in certain cases they may issue notices of intended prosecution, which add up to about pounds 55 including costs. The yellow hats are limited to issuing pounds 30 fixed penalties for staying on a meter beyond the excess period, and for parking improperly on yellow lines.

Those visited by the red or blue followed by the yellow may end paying up to pounds 60 - not so bad as the clamping penalty of pounds 70 or, worse, the pounds 130 towaway penalty.

(Photographs omitted)

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