Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

When you live in central London, the idea of living in a street without parking restrictions seems absolute bliss. No more faffing about trying to find the 15 different documents you need to prove that a, you are you and b, your car is yours when you go to buy a resident's parking permit. No more worrying about friends' cars being towed away if they venture round to tea. No more 8.25am panic as visiting relatives leap out of bed to move the car before the wardens start their patrol.

The street where I used to live was all right if you worked nine to five. But if you were on the night shift, or returning from the supermarket on a Saturday morning laden with 27 carrier bags and two small children, you'd have to go three streets away to find a parking place. So when we moved to a house which not only had no parking restrictions outside, but also offered off-street parking, we thought it would be heaven. In fact, it's a strange mixture of a caravan site, the long-term car park at Heathrow, a garage workshop and a corporation tip.

To be fair, we don't have much caravan action going on in our street, just the odd camper van parked overnight. It's not like the next street, which has a little encampment of mobile homes at one end. At first glance, you think they've been dumped there, but then you notice the piece of paper pinned to the window of a non-motorised caravan. "This caravan is not abandoned," it states indignantly, " it is my home".

These vehicles don't appear to belong to travellers or homeless people. The local view is that they belong to long-distance commuters or peripatetic workers - builders, perhaps - who come to London to work during the week and go home at weekends. I thought sleeping in caravans or camper vans on the public highway was against the law, but I must be mistaken. I know what my neighbours think of this practice. And it isn't printable.

The second category of parkers are the vans and trucks. These belong to tradesmen who can't or won't park their vehicle outside their own properties. Perhaps they feel it is unreasonable to be expected to pay for a permit. Perhaps their wife hates the sight of the bloody thing: I don't know. Anyway, they park them in our street. They find it especially useful when they go off to Florida or Spain for four or five weeks. Or when they have a flat tyre.

The third category are the breakdowns. Some of these are cars on their last legs (or rather wheels), like the white Maxi that was parked opposite for three months. There's also the mechanic who pitches up in a van to do some sort of car repair work, though what he does and how he manages to get the broken-down cars to our street in the first place I've never managed to work out.

Finally, and most anti-socially, there are the fly-tippers. At one point we had someone who seemed to be running a sort of house-clearance scam. Vast vans full of rubbish would be driven up, then decanted into an ancient old Volvo estate which was (I assume) taken to the tip, thus avoiding commercial rubbish charges. A call to Wandsworth council speedily put paid to this practice, but we still get the odd old bath or cooker dumped on the pavement.

Personally, I rather admire the cheek of these clandestine parkers. I wouldn't dare park my car in front of one of my neighbours' houses and leave it for four or five days. But whereas in an ordinary parking bay, you get an £80 fine slapped on your windscreen if you overstay by so much as a couple of minutes, in a street without any restrictions, you can park for months without fear of penalty (unless you're particularly sensitive to the sound of gnashing teeth).

Sooner or later, of course, the locals will beg the council to bring in residents' parking. One man gets so outraged by the endless vans and lorries that seem to need to park outside his house, not to mention the car-borne dogwalkers and commuters using Wandsworth Common station, that he's had some stickers printed saying "Park in your own street" which he slaps on the windscreen of offending vehicles. Trouble is, by doing so, he's probably breaking the law. It's a funny old world.

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