It was 4:55am on our metropolitan cul-de-sac. It was cold and the sky was black. The only movement came from a fox strutting past a streetlight and the only noise came from the rumbling wheels of the suitcase I dragged towards my car. I had been particularly pleased, the previous afternoon, to secure one of the two parking spaces on our little street of 18 flats.
I was still feeling pleased with myself as I drove away, and the pride was even lingering as I drove back, five minutes later, to get my passport - 5am, still cold, and the sky still black, but this time the only sound and movement came from a neighbour, strutting smugly past a streetlight and pressing the remote key to her car. I didn't need the space - I was about to go on holiday - but that was not the point. She was moving her car at 5am! Are we really so desperate for parking spaces that we sit up, like snipers, gazing down at the street through the small hours, waiting for a clear shot? Apparently so.
According to a survey of more than 2,500 motorists by Direct Line insurance, pressure on available parking spaces in residential areas is causing neighbourly disputes as (mainly urban) motorists attempt to stake a claim to a parking space outside their home. Of those asked, 58 per cent said they get "irritated or angered" by other motorists "stealing" the parking space directly outside their home, and 27 per cent of motorists said they believe this public parking space actually "belongs to them" and no one else should be allowed to park there. The survey found that more than one in 10 has a neighbour "who will go to extreme lengths to stop somebody pinching their parking spot on a public road - using items such as rubbish bins and traffic cones to reserve a parking space".
Well, that's certainly the case on my little street in London. James and Mildred, a couple in their early 70s, plonk out the police cones each morning, and woe betide the new resident who attempts to move them. When she's not in the mood for lugging those heavy yellow cones about, Mildred simply stands out there in her old green housecoat with one foot off the curb until James putters up in their ancient rusting Fiesta for the evening's lengthy reversing ritual.
If you talk to Mildred, you'll find she has a point to make. In the London Borough of Brent's Zone H we pay £50 a year for the right to squabble over our two spaces. There are nine garages on the other side of the road, but the freeholder has rented most of them out to the local shopkeepers, who use them as storage space. One of the nine has a roof he won't fix, so it's empty. Another is on loan to the owner of a wood-fired pizza takeaway outfit. About once a fortnight, a lorry tips a few bonfires worth of tree limbs into the street, and then a couple of days later some poor bloke chucks the bigger bits into the garage, leaving us residents to sweep up the detritus and figure out a way to dispose of it.
With our Zone H permits we can also park around the corner, but my older neighbours and those with young children don't like going round there after nightfall. People have been shot back there. Murdered in drive-bys. We joke that the gangsters have to drive by because they can't park.
At least violence hasn't crept into our community culture. As far as I know, no sinister notes have yet been tucked beneath a neighbour's wipers; no one has come to blows. But the same cannot be said of everywhere in Britain. The death of Keith Rolfe, the 60-year-old who came to blows with a neighbour over a residents' space outside his home in Aldershot and then suffered a heart attack, shows that parking disputes are no longer just a matter of twitching net curtains.
The Direct Line survey reveals that a fifth of drivers have left letters of complaint on a space-snatcher's windscreen and one in 10 have deliberately blocked-in their neighbour's car in retaliation. The survey identifies the frightening, new phenomenon of "parking rage", experienced by 6 per cent of motorists in the past year. Forty-six per cent of incidents were caused by a resident blocking access to a neighbour's home and 13 per cent were over bad parking and the use of two spaces instead of one. Forty-nine per cent of motorists surveyed said that parking in their area is worse than it was five years ago and an impressive 6 per cent of us in the south of England have moved house because of parking problems.
And who can blame them? Have you seen the price of garages in central London? Savills recently sold a double garage off Notting Hill's Ladbroke Grove for £240,000. Agents reckon that, across London, access to a parking space will put an average of £50,000 on the price of a property. Those outside of London (in Brighton and York, for example) describe garages in the older parts of the town centre as "gold dust". And they warn buyers to be careful of which properties come with the right to a street permit. Often flats do not - especially those in basements, above shops, or new conversions of, say, the pub on the corner.
Even if you can park on your street, you have to be very careful. More cars than ever before are being hit while stationary. Most Londoners have, at some time or another, found their wing mirror on the other side of the street from their wing. Around 9 per cent of surveyed motorists admitted to hitting a parked car in the last five years - which amounts to some 300,000 dents or scrapes. And a morally challenged 40 per cent didn't leave their details. As Emma Holyer, a Direct Line spokeswoman, says: "Although this is often minor damage, it's obviously very annoying and affects your no-claims situation if the guilty party doesn't leave details." She estimates the average claim at between £800 and £1,000.
On the bright side, all this pettiness does encourage us to give up our nasty, polluting cars. Or, in the case of my Canadian friend Priya, it makes us work harder. "To avoid paying Westminster council parking fees while living in Maida Vale," she says, "I would leave before 8:30am and get back home after 6:30pm. It was a very productive time for me." She is amused by the findings of the Direct Line survey. "The thought of reserved English people getting frustrated over parking spaces is hilarious - it reminds me of the Fawlty Towers sketch with John Cleese hitting that Mini with a tree branch."
How much for a lock-up?
* A space within a block of flats in South Kensington, "moments from a vast array of fashionable amenities and the beautiful surroundings of Hyde Park", will set you back £80,000 (Foxtons, 020-7590 1000).
* A lock-up near the Oval is on the market for £150,000 (Foxtons, 020-7801 1111). The details read: "Nearby transport links include Oval Underground station (Northern Line) and for the motorist the A3 leads to routes into and out of central London." The picture (above) makes the space seem a little less appealing, though.
* An underground space on the ritziest address in London W1, Park Lane, is currently up for grabs at £90,000 (Foxtons, 020-7973 2000), and is described as the ultimate convenience, or "a good rental investment".
* A garage on Park Lane, London W1, is on the market for £125,000 (Foxtons, 020-7973 2000.)
* Even in the leafy west-London suburb of Putney, where one might imagine that parking is not such a problem, a garage is currently on the books at £20,000 (Foxtons, 020-8355 1000).