Just when they thought it was safe to park on a yellow line...
It must have seemed like a motorists' Utopia – streets with no traffic wardens. But yesterday, after a year away, enforcement officers returned to Aberystwyth. Kevin Rawlinson joined them on patrol
It was heralded as every motorist's dream. Police officers in Aberystwyth were giving up parking enforcement, and while the council geared up to take on the job the rules would be dropped for a year. Free parking would reign. But while motorists expressed envy for the Welsh town, cracks started to appear. Punch-ups and near pile-ups left many missing those familiar yellow notices tucked under the windscreen wipers.
Things got so bad – drivers parked on yellow lines; near junctions; on pavements and in disabled bays – that the local paper took to regularly photographing the worst offenders in a bid to shame them.
Yesterday though, the wardens were back. And it was not long before they caught their first unsuspecting offenders. Locals were, on the whole, welcoming to the officers restoring calm to their roads but there were early hints that the tyranny of the ticket machine would start to rankle once again.
Anna Dyer, 55, was caught at 11:30am unloading her car into the house she rents out to students. She said she had been there for only 10 minutes but, after a year-long hiatus, the wardens were in no mood to show mercy to those who had angered the Pay and Display Gods.
She was fined £70.
"I wasn't expecting them to be working on the bank holiday," she said. "I was upset because I caught them while they were writing the ticket out. I hoped I might get away with it. Yesterday I did the same but they weren't around. Today, they just appeared from nowhere."
She added: "To be honest, I think we will be happy because some people are terrible, leaving the car on a corner, blocking ambulances and lorries."
Wyn Williams, a local resident, said: "It was great to begin with but, obviously, people abused it in the end and were parking in all sorts of ridiculous places and dangerous places.
"I think it's fantastic [that they are back], I really do because it's just got beyond, it's got beyond. They were parking in disabled spaces and parking there for ages."
Aberystwyth, on the coast just south of the Snowdonia national park, was one of the only places in Britain to maintain the system of employing police traffic wardens. When officers finally handed responsibility to the council, it was announced that there would be a one-year gap.
In theory, during that time motorists would find themselves in trouble if fellow drivers complained about their parking. But the window effectively allowed people driving in the town to do whatever they pleased.
The local Chamber of Commerce accused people of "abusing the situation" after the last ticket was issued to Darren Huxtable, the landlord of one of the town's pubs, who was caught parking in a disabled space in May last year. And, instead of sheepishly paying the fine, Mr Huxtable posed for a commemorative photograph with his penalty notice and the issuing officer, Juliet Morgan.
Yesterday, as the new, six-strong team of attendants started handing out tickets, Mayor Dylan Lewis said the decision to have a year's hiatus – taken at the county level by Ceredigion County Council – had been frustrating. Speaking to The Independent from a carnival in the town, he said: "We have had an issue with congestion and people parking for hours on end on double yellow lines. It has been frustrating for the ordinary motorists trying to find somewhere to park their cars.
"That has been the real issue, as well as a lack of access to the town centre. We are a university town and, as such, we are busy for 12 months of the year.
"Let's hope it is over now and that order has been restored. We welcome everybody to Aberystwyth, and for us to be able to be open to the world, we have to be accessible. That is why the return of the traffic wardens has to be a good thing."
The warning signs were there from the very beginning. Speaking soon after police announced that they would no longer be responsible for enforcing parking laws, the Chamber of Commerce's Cyril Baker, who owns a jewellery store in the town, said he was worried about the effect on business.
He said there had been "a somewhat relaxed attitude" among motorists in Aberystwyth in the first few weeks of what has been called the town's "free-for-all" period.
"It doesn't take long before this descends into chaos," Mr Baker said. "People are aware that traffic wardens are not enforcing their infringements. People are parking on junctions and on double yellow lines."
Fighting even broke out in the town as some drivers embraced the lack of enforcement more readily than others.
Mandy Gallagher, who manages an Aberystwyth café, witnessed one scuffle as two drivers fought to squeeze past each other between a clutch of illegally parked cars.
"All of a sudden a man got out of his car and he was shouting, 'You have to go back!' and then he pushed another man and they started fighting," she told reporters.
Taxi driver Susie Hughes, 40, said she was initially in favour but objected to people parking in disabled bays.
"The wardens have been out for the last week putting warning tickets on cars," she said. "We have all taken advantage of being allowed to be on double yellow lines before now, but I just won't do it now.
"Parking has always been an issue here because we have only got a few car parks. As long as they [the wardens] use their discretion, it will be better now they are back."
While some locals will relish the transition from chaos to order and have welcomed the new wardens, others are more pragmatic. How long will the new-found popularity of said officials last? "Until I get my first ticket," said Ms Hughes.
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