End to 'legalised mugging' as council bans clampers

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The Independent Online

In a victory for motorists, a London council has announced that it will no longer sanction wheel clamping because it is so unpopular with residents.

Steve Richards, the leader of Islington Council, said: "Today we are saying, 'you were right and we were wrong'.

"We want our parking policies to be understood as firm but fair,and as a council we want to show that we do listen. That is why we have decided to say 'no' to the clamping of cars."

Camden Council, which contracts out the second largest clamping and removals service in the UK, is considering following suit.

Few practices have inspired such loathing, or such bad press. In one report, cowboy clampers removed a woman's ring as a deposit for her fine. Drivers have been made to pay up to £1,300 to get their cars unclamped.

Last week two men who ran an "aggressive and bullying" car-clamping firm were found guilty of blackmail and were warned that they face lengthy prison terms. The court was told that the pair tried to clamp one motorist who was attempting a three-point turn and another who was sitting in his vehicle with the engine running.

Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation, which hands out a Dick Turpin award for the UK's worst operator, described some clamping as "legalised mugging" perpetrated by people who use "bully boy tactics".

He welcomed Islington Council's decision but said it was clampers operating on private land who were the real problem as they are insufficiently regulated. "Surely in a civilised society there must be a better and more efficient way to regulate parking and traffic flow," Mr King said.

Clampers have in turn faced angry responses from motorists. One odd-job man became a national hero when he donned a superhero's outfit and, calling himself Angle-Grinder Man, cut clamps from vehicles in London. Last July two workers were stabbed after immobilising a Vauxhall Vectra in Northampton.

There have been attempts to clean up the industry. From last month it became illegal to work as a clamper without a licence from the Security Industry Authority.

The British Parking Association welcomed the licence, but said in order to drive rogue clampers out of the sector an Approved Contractors Scheme with a clear code of practice was required.

Islington Council and its partners NCP acknowledged that clamping cars had the effect of blocking roads when the purpose of restrictions was to do the opposite.

In the 12 months to spring 2005, some 23,000 vehicles were clamped in the borough, of which 91 per cent paid the £65 fine, generating £1,366,365.

Mr Hitchins said: "We are not a cash-hungry council. We want to regulate parking by consent."

Bob Macnaughton, chief executive of NCP, said: "There is no question that clamping can play an important role in deterring illegal parking, but it is right that the public has a say in how deterrents such as this are used."

Clamps will not completely disappear from Islington's streets, however. Drivers who misuse disabled badges, persistent evaders of parking fines and the owners of untaxed vehicles still risk being clamped.

In neighbouring Camden, a cross-party committee of councillors has recommended an independent investigation into whether clamping should be banned or modified.

"This move signals the end of clamping right across London," said a clamping-firm executive who preferred not to be named. "A number of councils have watered down their policy and some have been wondering whether to stop."

But it is worth heeding the warning from an Islington Council spokeswoman: "If you park illegally, you will still get towed."

U-turns on road policy

* West Midlands Police began to dismantle and disable several speed cameras last week after a review which found they failed to comply with strict position rules and could be causing more accidents than they prevent.

* Barnet council infuriated the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, last year by ripping out 100 speed humps, claiming they slowed ambulances on emergency calls.

* Birmingham City Council admitted this month that it had put up incorrect parking signs - banning waiting when it should have been allowed for 60 minutes - in one road and urged people to appeal against tickets.

* In April, councillors in Edinburgh made a U-turn, promising to cut residents' parking permit charges after fierce criticism.

Nick Golding