Councils and Parking – The Relationship Test
The BBC’s Inside Out London this week did a follow up to their report last year that investigated whether two London boroughs were setting unlawful parking ticket targets with their contractors. This week they suggested that more London Councils are doing the same. Inside Out say that their conversations with serving and former enforcement officers suggest the pressure to give out tickets is so much that sometimes they make up the evidence, or ‘constructively create PCNs’. They showed on the programme how this is done and got a ‘disgusted’ enforcement officer to demonstrate. The handheld computer’s 5 minute constant observation mode is begun before a contravention has been observed so that instant tickets can be issued when a contravention is found. They pretend the car has been observed for 5 minutes, when it hasn’t. This is commonly known as ‘cooking’ and the enforcement officer interviewed claimed that thousands of tickets are given in this way which is illegal. The claim is that the pressure is so great to produce enough PCNs that these are the kind of tactics the enforcement officers need to resort to. Worse still, there is no way the driver can prove what has happened. The example in the programme from Lambeth showed a butcher unloading his van ticketed incorrectly but given no choice but to appeal and when rejected by Lambeth, to go to the independent adjudicator. The written evidence from Lambeth at the appeal reported that there was no evidence he was unloading when photographic evidence provided by Lambeth itself clearly showed he was. Of course, the PCN was thrown out.
In these austere times, local authorities are having to be creative about how to increase income and reduce spending. Parking is clearly a bit of a cash cow. The programme reported that last year Bromley made a £5.7m profit form parking, Hackney £7.9m, and Lambeth £12m. However there is creative and there is ‘arguably unlawful’ when it comes to raising revenue.
This time the government is on the side of the driver and both Eric Pickles and Brandon Lewis at DCLG have attacked local authorities for raising cash through parking fines, come out against ‘spy car’ cameras, and even suggested 30 minutes free parking in towns as a measure to boost our flagging high streets. Though this often feels like rhetoric with little action taken to change the way things are.
As a Londoner, I’ve fallen foul of parking enforcement on many occasions. However hard I try to keep to all the different sets of rules, mistakes are made, or as Inside Out suggests, you’ll be ticketed unfairly. This is so regular, I began to budget for PCNs annually as part of my personal financial planning – and don’t forget this is on top of what we pay for Council Tax, parking permits and hourly parking in car parks and on street! Although I’m often successful on appeal, the time this takes and stress it causes is hardly worth it, and Councils know this. Once I tried to contact my local council about it. Even when getting a local Councillor on side, their rebuffs were astonishing.
There is a another side to this parking fiasco I feel Councils don’t consider. In order to deal with the huge cuts in funding most Councils are also now looking at ways they can reduce demand for services, change behaviour to reduce the burden on services, and increase levels of community activity and volunteering to fill the gaps where services can no longer do what they used to. They need the community to work with them, co-create, co-produce and do more for themselves. Though, often when the Council reaches out, they find an angry public. I suspect few politicians or senior council officers think much about how overzealous or unfair parking enforcement could impact on the Council’s relationship with its public and whether the benefits of increased revenue might be far outweighed by the costs of citizens being unwilling to behave in ways that are helpful to the Council. As Councils continue to seek the public’s help and cooperation over many areas of service delivery, they are going to have to consider these issues more and more. I call it ‘The Relationship Test’. All Council practices need looking at from a different point of view. Will the way we work, this policy, or that practice help build trust with the public, engender a better relationship with citizens, encourage positive behaviours or volunteering? Or the opposite – will it damage the relationship we have with the public and cost us dearly later. Without this rubric, Councils run the risk of becoming increasingly sneakier about revenue raising and laissez faire about the impacts these kinds of activities have on their relationship with the public whilst scratching their heads about why citizens get angry at public meetings and often seem unwilling to get involved.