Parking fines: Highway robbery

A crash victim, a hearse, even a pet... all have got parking tickets. What is the penalty scheme really for - to clear the roads or make councils pots of money?
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The notorious case of the illegally parked bunny won Mr Chamberlain an award for the craziest parking ticket of 2003. It was almost as silly as the fine given to 2004's winner, Nadhim Zahawi, a Wandsworth councillor and the chief executive of pollster YouGov, who received a £100 fixed-penalty notice on his crashed scooter while he was being loaded into an ambulance with a broken leg.

And it doesn't stop there, as the grieving relatives of Marie Fourlla discovered. They emerged from her funeral service at St Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Westminster to find their cortège had been ticketed. Leverton and Sons, undertakers for the late Princess of Wales, said this had happened to them half a dozen times. Lambeth council gave Tom Tennant and Sheron Green tickets after workers painted yellow lines along the roads where they were already parked. Derek Scott stopped to ask one Westminster warden for directions and was ticketed by a second warden with him. Doctors' cars, ambulances and fire engines have all fallen foul of overzealous attendants.

Parking-ticket madness is now the cause of nationwide anger. And to feel it, you only have to go to one of the places where drivers pay for their transgressions, such as the flagship of Wandsworth's chain of Parking Shops, on the fifth floor of a 1970s-style annexe to the borough's town hall. Ironically, the complex is surrounded by a red route. Parking in the council's courtyard is by permit only. It is not clear where "customers" can leave a car while at the "shop".

William Millgate, 33, a plumber, tells a typical story. On a shopping expedition to Putney, south-west London, he left his grey BMW in what he thought was a pay-and-display bay on a street where a parking warden was patrolling. When he returned, he had a ticket. "I'd parked in a residents' bay by mistake," says Mr Millgate. "It wasn't the warden's job to warn me, but he could have." Austin Ince, 46, an electrical engineer, has an even more absurd tale. He was having work done on a wall overlooking his elderly neighbour's driveway, so she parked on the street across the entrance. "I can understand them issuing the ticket. She was on a yellow line," he says. "But you'd think that once the ludicrous situation was explained - that the only person she was blocking was herself - they'd have rescinded it."

Thanks to fines like these, paid by Mr and Mrs Angry Average Briton, the nation's councils are coining it. An estimated eight million tickets were issued in 2004, raising £1bn - 70 per cent more than in 1998. The combined profit in England was £440m, almost double the 1998 figure. Westminster topped the league tables in 2004, issuing more than one million tickets, clamping 45,000 vehicles and towing 20,000. Of the £65m it raised from parking in 2003, more than half was profit. No wonder critics claim that the persecution of motorists has become big business for local authorities.

So is the anger justified, or are we just a bunch of whingers? Have parking fines become a stealth tax, or are they an essential tool for smoothing traffic flow and increasing safety on Britain's crowded streets? To get to the answers we must, appropriately, reverse into the question.

The first parking restrictions were introduced in London in the 1920s. Yet it was not uncommon to find cars double- and even treble-parked in the 1940s. One study found that between 1947 and 1948, traffic accidents rose by 8 per cent, except in areas with parking controls, where they fell by 31 per cent. After meters were installed in London's Manchester Square in 1958, the number of parked cars halved and traffic speeds rose by 16 per cent. Even today, most people have little sympathy for the idiot who leaves his car on a red route at rush hour, and nothing but contempt for the driver who endangers children's lives by parking illegally outside a school.

But the proliferation of rules between the 1960s and 1980s created an onerous duty for the police, consuming time and money that could have been spent on tackling more serious crimes. By the 1980s, enforcement was rare except for the worst breaches. Chief constables wanted to get out of the parking business.

The result was the Road Traffic Act 1991, which decriminalised parking violations, making them an issue for councils, which crucially got to keep any profit they made. By 1996, all of London had switched to the new system and some 140 councils across the country have now decriminalised. Police can push reluctant councils into taking over simply by announcing that they will stop issuing tickets. Leicester is in the middle of such a transition, which is taking longer than the six months' notice given by its Chief Constable. The result has been a degree of chaos, says John Mugglestone, the Tory leader of the city council. "Even the dustbin wagons are having trouble getting round corners because of illegally parked cars."

With the emphasis on incentives over the past decade, the initial blunder made by most councils is at least understandable. Contractors were given performance targets, often measured by the number of tickets written. In the first year, these were easy to meet. So many drivers were used to the lax enforcement under the police that offenders could be found on almost any street.

By year two of the schemes, however, motorists had mostly learnt their lesson. Gross violations fell, and parking wardens had to apply the letter of the law ever more stringently in order to meet their quotas. Better enforcement and more compliance should have led to a declining number of tickets. Instead, the figures soared. The number of penalty charge notices in London rose from four million to nearly six million between 2000 and 2004. "The contractor is under the cosh to provide more and more tickets," says Kevin Delaney of the RAC Foundation.

The hyperactivity of today's parking attendants has resulted in a sharp backlash. Websites such as appealnow.com have been spawned that offer to help people fight tickets. And campaigners have successfully challenged the regulations that underlie parking restrictions. Called Traffic Regulation Orders, these documents specify exactly when, where and under what circumstances tickets can be issued. Many bear little relationship to the signs and lines on the streets. In the past couple of years, councils up and down the country have been forced to repay thousands of improperly issued fines.

But parking problems are not about to go away. The number of vehicles on Britain's roads is rising steadily, from 24.5 million when the 1991 Act was passed, to 31.3 million in 2004. The number of parking spaces is not keeping up. Multistorey car parks built in the Sixties are being pulled down. Where planners used to insist that developers provide two off-street bays for each flat built, now they often limit parking spaces to one. And annual off-street parking charges on some estates have risen much faster than the price of on-street residents' permits, pushing cost-conscious residents' cars on to the road, and reducing the number of bays available for others.

But many councils and contractors are trying to improve. Manchester was one of the worst offenders when Bugsy hit the headlines, but is now being lauded: incentives for writing tickets were dropped when it switched its contract to NCP. It rewarded the company if the number of successful appeals was low, encouraging NCP to get the ticketing right first time. Wheel-clamping was dropped, on the grounds that it kept cars on the street even longer. Westminster, too, has improved, issuing its wardens with digital cameras that make it easier to support legitimate tickets and harder to claim non-existent offences.

But many councils still have a long way to go, as any local paper can show. Christine Parker was one of three to appear in last week's Camden New Journal expressing her "dismay and frustration at the incompetence of traffic wardens". She has been fined twice for parking in disabled spaces, even though her car has a permit clearly displayed. The view of the council, she writes, is that "if the traffic warden did not see it, it was not there". For angry motorists, that sort of attitude isn't good enough.

Ticket tactics: What to do when you are booked

READ THE TICKET CAREFULLY: It should give the date, time and place of the offence and the date of notification. It should identify your vehicle, the rule that has been broken and tell you how to deal with the ticket. If it fails to do these things, it may be invalid.

GATHER YOUR EVIDENCE: If you have a camera phone, take pictures. Ask any witnesses to sign brief statements.

UNOFFICIAL CHALLENGE: Within 14 days, write to the council explaining, simply, why the penalty should be waived.

NOTICE TO OWNER: If the council rejects the first representation, it will inform the vehicle's owner by post, giving another 14 days to pay the discount rate. After that, it will issue a notice to owner.

APPEAL: The "notice to owner" details the grounds on which the owner can appeal. If your case doesn't fit into these categories, you can still challenge the ticket. You have 28 days to file.

ADJUDICATION: If the formal appeal is turned down, you can now turn to the adjudicators, independent lawyers paid for by a 55p levy on every ticket issued. They will talk to you and a representative of the council in person, or deal with evidence you've posted in, and reach an impartial decision. In more than half of cases they back the motorists.

CONTACTS: In metropolitan London, visit www.parkingandtrafficappeals.gov.uk; outside London, visit www.parkingappeals.gov.uk

1 CLAMPED

Moments after a warden slaps a ticket on, the clampers arrive. Ironically, this means the car will be illegally parked for even longer

2 REMOVED

Towing cars that are blocking traffic is one thing, but when all you've done is overstayed the meter, the cost is over the top

3 C CHARGE

The congestion charge has cut traffic in London, but drivers have been wrongly ticketed when cameras have been left on at night

4 PAY AND DISPLAY

Stick your receipt upside down or on the wrong bit of window and you will earn a ticket

5 LINE PAINTERS

Beware! If they paint yellow lines beside your parked vehicle, the traffic wardens will not be far behind

6 HELPFUL SHOP ASSISTANTS

With the warden around the corner, it is a race to your car. But helpful store staff may bring your purchases to you

7 CCTV CAMERAS

Pull into a parking bay, read the sign, realise you can't stay, pull out again. You may still be posted a ticket by an automatic camera

8 WARDEN WARNINGS

Some shops have started installing cameras that let patrons watch out for approaching parking wardens

9 PARKING ATTENDANT

Underpaid, even if they are on commission. They have so little room for discretion that it is not worth arguing with them

10 BROKEN METERS

Don't expect any sympathy if they don't work. Leaving a note saying you paid won't let you off a ticket

11 RUSH HOUR RESTRICTIONS

It may be OK to park here now, but not in half an hour. Some bays change status as often as five times a day

12 WHEELCHAIR ACCESS

A dip in the kerb usually means access for vehicles or the disabled, even if it is not marked. Park here at your peril

13 LOOK OUT!

One of the best defences against unfair ticketing comes from drivers warning each other that parking attendants are near

14 RESIDENTS' PERMITS

Being entitled to buy a permit doesn't mean you can park wherever you want. Make sure your permit is displayed properly

15 RED ROUTES

Don't even think about stopping here in rush hour. If you do, you deserve the fine you will almost certainly get

16 DOUBLE YELLOW LINES

Old, faded and patched lines may not be legally valid, but you will still have the hassle of disputing a ticket

17 DISABLED BAYS

Even with a blue badge visible, disabled drivers are often given tickets for using the bays reserved for them

18 HIDDEN SIGNS

Keep a sharp eye out when parking for signs obscured by trees or lorries. Not seeing the sign is never an excuse

19 LOADING

Don't take too long bringing that piano down the stairs. Parking wardens are not renowned for their patience

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