Who'd be a traffic warden?

Regarded as ruthless roadside extortionists by much of the population, Britain's growing army of kerbside guardians has an image problem that's not easy to shake off. Barrie Clement goes under cover to discover what life's really like for those at the sharp end of the nation's love affair with cars
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Parents on the school run are the worst. The abuse is constant, unimaginative and, for the most part, unprintable. How dare I interfere with a parent's God-given right to park in front of the school gates to pick up their offspring! I'd remind them that children have a habit of running out from behind parked cars, but I'd be wasting my breath. Does anyone have a good word for the traffic warden? A word that's longer than four letters, maybe?

The headlines don't help. Caricatured as social deviants who hide behind bushes waiting to pounce on law-abiding motorists as they go about their rightful business, traffic wardens face a level of public antipathy that Britain's other well-known hate figures - estate agents, lawyers and, erm, journalists - would find hard to stomach.

And so it was that after a week of particularly venomous anti-warden media coverage, I decided to take time out from my day job as transport editor of The Independent to don a uniform and experience life on the other side.

In Southwark, south London, the wardens' depot is an anonymous office on the Old Kent Road above a Carphone Warehouse and beneath the "Holy Ghost Zone - The Redeemed Christian Church of God". The warden I will be accompanying is "Attendant 529", a computer science graduate from Nigeria whose identity has to be protected for his own safety. He is one of 75 wardens working in the area. Most have been either kicked, punched or spat at during their rounds. All are abused, virtually on a daily basis. Around 90 per cent of them are Africans and half of those are graduates. Attendant 529 has worked as an attendant for three years. He says his degree is not recognised in this country and explains that his position isn't unique: one of his former supervisors was a qualified radiographer.

The basic rate for an attendant is £5.50 an hour - just 45p above the legal minimum wage. Their employer Apcoa Parking adds a £1 "attendance allowance" - after a particularly bad day on the streets some attendants might be tempted to feign illness, although stress-related sickness is clearly a genuine problem. Contrary to the urban myth, the Southwark wardens don't get bonuses for issuing more tickets.

Attendant 529, a 31-year-old father of three daughters, has stayed in the job far longer than most because he wants to take advantage of a promotional structure. "No one will tell you they are happy in this job because of the amount of abuse you get - it gets worse every day. But you have to put food on the table. And you have to make your own fun as far as you can." Even so, it's not always easy. Three months ago he was punched after giving a ticket to a man who had recently lost a child. When it was issued he was unaware of the circumstances, and once a ticket is out of the machine it cannot be rescinded. He explained to the driver that there was an appeal process and urged him to take advantage of it. But another member of the family took matters into his own hands and attacked him. The man got way with a caution.

The day kicks off with a daily briefing about the latest road conditions. The wardens are given a list of registration numbers they should report to the police. Some vehicles are to be left alone - one assumes they are unmarked police cars. Two registration numbers are writ large on a noticeboard. The mayor's cars are not to be booked.

Before heading out onto the mean streets, the wardens are entreated to have a "nice day". One attendant, Rabbieu Sankoh, (who gives me permission to use his name) tells me he had a very different life at home in Sierra Leone. He was a pop star with a hit record to his name. His song "Have You Seen?" sold half a million copies and was chanted by the country's football supporters during international matches. Alas, he only received about £1,000 in royalties, and with the arrival of war in 1993 was forced to flee the country. The eldest brother of 12 children, he was expected to provide for his family.

As we leave the depot, Attendant 529 checks his radio so that he will be able to summon help if need be. A "code yellow" call means he is being given a hard time by a motorist. A "code red" warns headquarters that he is being attacked. Attendant 529 explains that staff are given four weeks' training before being allowed out on their own. Trainees are given an "interpersonal skills course" on how to calm people down. The advice is to listen to the irate motorists; repeat what they say as you write it down; not to interrupt; check what they've said and say: "Have I got this right?". That way they have to think about what they've said. The problem is that the people who assault attendants tend to do so without warning.

The first confrontation isn't far away. A group of shopkeepers voice their complaints that there is nowhere for their customers to park, that the restrictions have become too tough and that they are in danger of going out of business. After listening patiently, Attendant 529 tells them to contact the council.

As we head off, he warns me about crossing the road: some motorists have been known to accelerate when they see a warden. Attendants are advised against going into cafés in uniform for fear of provoking a fracas, so Attendant 529 often finds himself eating his sandwiches sitting on a wall - although some residents have even stopped him doing that.

Most wardens use their discretion when issuing tickets - partly out of a sense of self-preservation. "You've got to have some friends in an area. But not too many, because you wouldn't be able to do your job," he says.

As a Nigerian, he is used to being racially abused, but ironically, during the course of his work in an area of Southwark regarded as a stronghold of the National Front, he gets little trouble. "One white female attendant was beaten up by some white guys in the area. They think it's not a fit job for a white person."

In fact, later in the day, as we head towards a local school, one father registers a degree of surprise when he see me. "Fuck me - a white one." Nearby, Attendant 529 encounters a member of his own tribe in Nigeria, but he stops himself speaking their native tongue. "He'd expect favours from me, and that wouldn't be fair on everyone else, would it?"

We arrive in time for the end of the school day and the parents are happy to make known their contempt for parking attendants in various ways. One man drives past jerking his fist up and down in a manner football fans normally reserve for insulting referees. One mother treats her daughter to an after-school tutorial in urban vernacular: "Fucking wankers," she yells as she sweeps past us. Then it's the turn of the school caretaker to approach. "You won't like what I'm about to say," she says. We fear the worst, but she complains that the parking regulations are not properly enforced. "There's never anyone here to stop them parking. The normal warden just drives past at about quarter past four when all the parents have gone. But give him his due he's been hit twice." She says even she has been punched for trying to stop parents parking outside the school.

For Attendant 529 today is just the latest in a series of encounters with irate parents. He tells me that once a driver leaned over his wife - with his children watching from the back seat - and tried to punch him. He then drove off only to stop and reverse towards him, and he had to jump out of the way.

One of the main complaints against wardens is that they are always attempting to reach ever-increasing targets and that it simply a means of raising money. Southwark insists that while there are "guidelines" on how many tickets a particular route should produce, once a norm has been established for a particular area, it is not adjusted upwards simply to raise more money.

A spokesperson for Southwark council said: "Sometimes people are not clear whose interest parking enforcement is meant to serve, but ultimately the laws are there to protect the whole community, from disabled people and the emergency services to local businesses and residents."

The £3m surplus from parking enforcement in Southwark in 2003-04 was used to fund school crossing patrols, for removing abandoned vehicles, improving roads and street lighting and for strengthening structures such as br idges. "Parking enforcement is in everyone's interest - if we didn't have it, it would be missed.

"The policy is geared to making roads safer... It's also about reducing congestion, in particular to improve the efficiency of bus routes."

It's a pity that the message isn't getting through to the andgry motorists of Southwark.