Miles and miles of money

Commission-hungry wardens waiting to pounce on every corner, parking spaces that cost £100,000 - and yellow lines as far as the eye can see. Are drivers being taken for a ride? Malcolm Macalister Hall investigates a voracious industry
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The Independent Online

You may not want to know this if you're about to drive into town and try to find a parking space, but there are 24.5 million cars in Britain. At any time, on any day, about 23 million of these cars are parked. Industry sources say that in a typical city centre, almost a third of the traffic consists of people driving around looking for somewhere to park. Sooner or later, frustration or forgetfulness or a meeting that over-runs will almost inevitably bring their own grim reward.

You may not want to know this if you're about to drive into town and try to find a parking space, but there are 24.5 million cars in Britain. At any time, on any day, about 23 million of these cars are parked. Industry sources say that in a typical city centre, almost a third of the traffic consists of people driving around looking for somewhere to park. Sooner or later, frustration or forgetfulness or a meeting that over-runs will almost inevitably bring their own grim reward.

It's a peaceful Sunday morning near Hyde Park Corner in central London, in the heart of the City of Westminster, which claims to operate "the largest parking service in Europe". Every seven or eight minutes another tow truck arrives at the underground car pound here, bringing vehicles that have been hoisted off the streets, their alarms wailing: shiny new sports cars, old Mercs, bashed-up vans, spotless VWs. It will cost the owners £200 to get their cars back.

Meanwhile, though it's Sunday and there's hardly any traffic, parking attendants stalk the streets. Nearby, off Oxford Street, there is what must be some of the most expensive weekday parking in Britain: Pay & Display at £1.20 for 15 minutes. Down a dingy, litter-strewn ramp in Soho, Westminster's underground Masterpark charges £43 for 12-24 hours. One-year NCP season tickets in the area go for between £5,750 and £6,600. (Compare all this with the bargain rates that are offered in remoter regions of the country - just £5 for 24 hours at the NCP in Perth, Scotland, for example.)

In London, however, the competition for parking space has reached such a pitch that lock-up garages in Chelsea have been sold for up to £125,000 - the price of a terraced house in many parts of the country. Underground spaces are being offered in Knightsbridge, beside Harrods, for up to £100,000. And last week, a strange item came up for sale at a central London property auction - 14 parking spaces in a side street beside Regent's Park, which the catalogue described as "a rare car park investment opportunity". In less than a minute, bids climbed from £400,000 to £475,000 - then stuck. The lot was withdrawn. The vendors wanted even more.

"Car-parking space is now a commodity," says Mark Moran, editor of the parking industry's magazine, Parking Review. "People will try to park, for free, as close as possible to where they want to get to; and when that is eliminated by clamping or whatever, they'll still walk quite a long way. But if it gets too far, they'll pay anything to be close to where they want to be."

This desperation to find somewhere to park has brought chunky profits for some 40 companies that now control much of the parking in Britain. This summer, they'll probably be raising glasses of champagne to toast a little-known anniversary that comes up in July - and one which many motorists might see as an occasion for mourning: the 10th anniversary of "decriminalised parking".

In 1994, this gave local authorities the option to take charge of parking in their area. Until then, it had been enforced by traffic wardens, employed by the police. And, even better for the councils, the legislation allowed them to keep the money from parking meters and tickets - as long as it was spent on transport improvements.

This sparked a boom in the parking industry as home-grown companies sprang up and multinationals moved in to compete for lucrative contracts to run local authority parking operations - from tickets to clamping and tow-truck services. Only National Car Parks (NCP) is anything like a household name. But other big players are Apcoa Parking UK (German-owned, on-street contracts with seven local authorities including Kensington and Chelsea, and Bolton); Q-Park (Dutch-owned, about 50 car parks in city centres, hospitals and at airports); Vinci Park UK (French-owned, 24 local authority on-street contracts including a string of London boroughs, Watford and Milton Keynes); and Central Parking System, with its on-street arm Control Plus (parent company Central Parking Corporation in Nashville, Tennessee; 16 UK on-street contracts including Edinburgh, Nottingham, Birmingham, and London's Royal Parks).

There is a lot of money involved: a July 2003 traffic report from Kensington and Chelsea, one of London's richest boroughs, shows that it paid Apcoa some £6m to run the on-street parking, clamping, and tow-truck service, and manage the town hall car park. But this pales beside the council's 2002/3 income from parking: £36.8m from meters, residents' permits and fines, which left a surplus, after costs, of £21.4m. And Westminster, Britain's biggest parking contract, was won from Apcoa by NCP last year. In 2002/3, almost a million parking tickets were issued on the borough's streets, bringing Westminster's profit from parking to about £40m. Across London, some five million tickets are issued per year.

From Bristol to Aberdeen, most of Britain's major conurbations have opted for decriminalised parking, which has brought repeated criticism that councils are merely in it for the money, and are using parking fines to raise revenue rather than control traffic. Contractors, of course, want to safeguard their contracts (and win new ones in a cut-throat market) by maximising council revenue from tickets. Some contractors have been pilloried for setting ticket targets and offering bonuses to their parking attendants. (One central London contractor is reported to offer staff monthly bonuses of £50 for issuing an average of two parking tickets an hour, and £215 for three tickets an hour.) Desperate to bump up their low pay - typically about £6.75 an hour - parking attendants, in turn, have been accused of being over-zealous to the point of absurdity: allegations that a rabbit hutch left in the road was ticketed in Eccles, a bus at a bus stop in Manchester, fire engines at a fire in London, and delivery drivers in the capital the moment they leave their cab to open their van doors.

In parking fees and fines, UK drivers are now reckoned to be paying £3bn a year. Decriminalisation has "opened the floodgates" for parking to become an industry rather than an enforcement issue, says Tony Vickers, spokesman for the Association of British Drivers.

"As a motorist, you constantly feel that you're no more than a cash target for local authorities," he says. "When you've got private companies running these schemes, they have a vested interest in bringing in the maximum amount of revenue from parking fines. We're not saying drivers should simply be allowed to park where they please - it would be utter chaos," he adds. "But our concern is the over-zealous enforcement of the regulations and the disproportionate fines for what are often very trivial offences."

Former council traffic manager John Squires knows just how upset drivers can get. His parking advice website (www. gets 1,000 hits a week from the curious and the outraged. "The thing that really winds people up is when they've got six inches of bumper overhanging the edge of the space - and they get done for being 'not wholly parked within a bay'," says Squires, whose book, The Motorist's Guide to Parking Tickets, is published later this month. It sets out the minutiae of the regulations and how to appeal against fines. It also explodes several urban parking myths, such as the common belief that if the car's wheels are in the bay, it's fine. (It's not. Bodywork counts too). Or that you have a few minutes' grace to get change for the meter or ticket machine. (You don't).

Squires calls himself The Parking Doctor, and has heard every complaint in the book. "I've heard of delivery vehicles pulling up, the driver gets out, opens the back, and before he's got the first package on his trolley an attendant is sticking a ticket on the windscreen. It's disgraceful."

Paul Watters, head of roads policy at the AA Motoring Trust, says that decriminalisation was originally introduced a decade ago because, particularly in London, the police did not have the resources to enforce parking regulations. Now, with more attendants and tougher enforcement, drivers are less likely to overstay their time in parking bays. "If you're a law-abiding motorist, decriminalisation has been good, because you get more opportunity to park," says Watters. "But if you're not a law-abiding motorist, it hits you like a ton of bricks. And because, given half a chance, we're all a bit lawless in terms of parking, a lot of this is like printing money. But what really irritates us is that under the old system, the traffic warden had discretion. Under the new system the attendant will write the ticket, and you have to argue about it later."

Of the contractors, one which has attracted frequent headlines alleging over-zealous ticketing is Central Parking System's on-street division, Control Plus. One of its major contracts - with Manchester City Council, believed to be worth £3m a year and due to run until 2006 - was cancelled late last year after a string of stories in the local press about Control Plus's activities (including ticketing a bus at a Manchester bus stop). But a glowing joint statement was issued by the council and Control Plus, insisting the parting was "amicable" and by "mutual agreement". Along with it came a compact not to discuss the split. Last week, neither side would comment further, but Brian Lashley, a reporter on the Manchester Metro News, who covered the story, says the council felt the bad publicity surrounding the city's parking contract wasn't doing it any good.

"My understanding is that the council was unhappy with the way the contract was being enforced," he says. "The number of tickets went up steadily. In 2002-2003, Manchester issued more than 138,000, which was 13,000 more than the previous year.

"There was a lot of grumbling on the streets - most of it was about the attitude of the parking attendants," says Lashley. "They've got a very difficult job. I spoke to a number of them and they said they behaved as they did - and made mistakes - because they were under so much pressure from their bosses."

The British Parking Association represents the industry, and is taking sensible steps to try to improve its poor public image. With support from the Department for Transport, the association is drawing up a new "model" contract that it hopes will serve as a template for future deals between contractors and local authorities, where performance would be measured not on the number of tickets issued, but on streets being kept clear. Other initiatives include a project with City and Guilds to develop a national standard for the training of Britain's 20,000 parking attendants.

The association's chief executive, Keith Banbury, says that better training and the new "model" contract - due to go on trial in London - should lay to rest the criticism that decriminalised parking is more about collecting revenue than controlling parking. "If we can get the contract right and the training right, it will show that it isn't about revenue," he says. "I would like us to get to a position where the parking attendant is seen as somebody who is supporting society, and keeping the streets clear for all of us. Our concern is people who attack parking attendants, who are only doing their job. If they have started to write a ticket out, they're not allowed to stop. And if they have done it incorrectly, there is an appeals procedure. But we want better-trained and better-paid people. That's what we're striving to achieve."

In Westminster, meanwhile, a spokesman points out that the council's huge revenues from parking have been ploughed into everything from transport for the disabled, to major projects such as pedestrian bridges across the Thames, and Westminster's contribution to the £60m upgrade of the approaches to Paddington station. And after its recent parking woes, Manchester is now being held up as a model for a new, common-sense approach to parking.

Under the council's head of parking, Andy Vaughan, and with a new contractor (NCP), clamping has been abandoned, parking attendants have been instructed to use their discretion, and the city's tow-trucks target only untaxed vehicles or those that actually cause obstructions or threaten road safety.

"It's been described as parking's 'Third Way'," says Vaughan. "Our strap line is: 'Be reasonable and proportionate in everything we do'. We used to clamp about 5,000 vehicles a year. But if you don't want a vehicle illegally parked, why on earth immobilise it and keep it there for even longer? So we ceased clamping. And we were removing vehicles in quiet side streets that weren't actually causing any major hazard or disruption - removals have now halved. We've also changed the contractual arrangements so that there are no incentives to issue more tickets, and we've given parking attendants much more discretion.

"We're cast-iron on the view that parking enforcement should never be about income generation," he adds. "Everyone says that, but sometimes you find the statement doesn't match the reality."

Meanwhile, out on the streets, Britain's underpaid parking attendants try to do their job while being abused, spat at and attacked. Issuing fines of up to £200 is never going to make them popular, but pressure from their managers to meet individual or company targets makes them even less so. "I'm sorry, it's very difficult for me to talk about the job," says an attendant writing out a ticket near Piccadilly Circus when I ask about the abuse he must get. "No comment," smiles another in Soho when I ask him the same thing. But a young lad on the pavement had heard my question.

"You know what my mate did, when one of these guys was going to give him a ticket? Pulled a gun on the geezer, he did." The worst part was that he said it in front of the attendant, thought it was funny, and laughed.

Britain'S Top Five Parking Operators

National Car Parks

Parent: Parking International (backed by Cinven)

Turnover: £231.9m

Pre-tax profit: £31.7m

UK's biggest operator; 900 sites, including 10 airports. 21 on-street contracts include Westminster (Britain's biggest), Brighton and Manchester

Apcoa Parking (UK)

Parent: Apcoa Parking AG (Germany)

Turnover: £83.5m

Pre tax profit: £2.7m

Manages more than 78,000 off-street parking spaces, including Parking Express at Heathrow and Gatwick. Eight on-street contracts, including Kensington and Chelsea, Camden (north), Southwark and Bolton

Meteor Parking

Parent: Go-Ahead

Turnover: £64.9m

Pre-tax profit: £4.5m

Airport and rail parking specialist; also has shopping centre and hospital contracts. 57,000 spaces.

Vinci Park UK

Parent: VINCI Group (France)

Turnover: £51.8m

Pre-tax profit: £1.9m

Part of the global construction and concession group VINCI. 74,000 off-street spaces; leading on-street operator; contracts with 24 councils including Corporation of London, Reading and Watford

Central Parking System
Of The UK

Parent: Central Parking Corporation (USA)

Turnover: £42m

UK pre-tax profit: £2.7m

Operates across US and Europe; manages 50,000 off-street UK spaces; on-street division Control Plus has 16 on-street contracts including Edinburgh, Birmingham, Nottingham, Salford and Slough

Source: 'Parking Review'

What To Do If You Get A Parking Ticket

1. Check the ticket. Firstly, check that the following details have been correctly recorded on it:

- vehicle registration number (if this is wrong you can forget about the ticket because the DVLA inquiry will not return your particulars)

- location, ie, street and position on it (eg, outside 25 High Street)

- date

- time(s) (eg, 'at' or 'from/to')

- contravention code

- make of vehicle

- colour of vehicle (allow some latitude, 'metallic gold' might be described as 'brown')

- attendant's number

- attendant's signature (don't expect more than a squiggle).

2. Collect as much evidence as possible before leaving the location. To record evidence, a camera is invaluable. Disposable cameras with a flash can be purchased for under £10. Motorists should keep one in their vehicle - it could repay the investment many times over. If you don't have a camera, make a note of any defects that you find. For example: 'No sign on lamp column outside 5 The Avenue.' If you find any defects, you are in a stronger position to get the ticket cancelled.

3. Challenge the ticket without delay.

4. If you have not had an acknowledgement within a couple of weeks, or a reply within a month, write again enclosing a copy of your original letter. Ask them to acknowledge receipt and enquire when you will get a reply.

5. If you phone, be sure to make a note of the name of the person to whom you have spoken and what was said. (If that person concedes any of the points that you raise, confirm all of those points by letter.)

6. If you receive an unsatisfactory reply, or standard letter of refusal, write again requesting answers to the specific points you raised.

7. The council is likely to reject an 'initial representation' in the hope that you will pay at the reduced rate rather than risk failure later and have to pay the full amount. If you are sure of your ground, don't be put off.

8. The more persistent you are, the better the chance that the council will concede the case. However, if the council refuses to cancel the ticket, you can take the matter to appeal. When rejecting a representation, councils must give a 'Notice of Rejection of Representations', along with details of how to take the matter to appeal if you are not satisfied with its findings.

From 'The Motorist's Guide to Parking Tickets' (Matador, £9.99)