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Just the ticket
Local Government Chronicle – 6 August 2008

Parking and enforcement are high on residents' hate list with a perception of over-zealous councils making millions from controls, Mark Smulian reports

The birth pangs of councils' enforcement of on-street car parking regulations - 'decriminalisation' in the jargon - were not entirely peaceful. Within a few months of its 1994 start, a warden had ended up on the front pages for ticketing the late Princess Diana, another group of wardens booked illegally parked cars that proved to belong to mourners at the funeral of gangster Ronnie Kray, and an undertaker was shown on television shouting at wardens "you can't ticket my hearse, I've got a stiff in the back".

These bizarre incidents and more notwithstanding, powers over on-street parking have proved popular as a nice little earner for councils to spend on transport and environmental improvements - though the operative word in most cases being 'little'. They are also a tool to improve the environment by preventing cars from being parked where they cause nuisance or obstruction.

Parking control is a power rather than a duty. This power rests with top-tier councils; in two-tier areas it is normally districts that carry out enforcement by agreement with counties, either using their own staff or those of contractors.

Councils won the power because enforcement had previously rested with the police who largely neglected it, having more pressing things to deal with. This had meant that although councils set parking policies and penalties, they had to rely for enforcement on the increasingly reluctant help of the police.

Decriminalisation began in London and has since spread to many corners of the country. It brought councils an important new role in a service that involves close contact with the public.

But it also brought a huge reputation problem. Everyone thinks parking rules should be enforced against other people, but resist them when they cause any personal inconvenience. And almost everyone who has ever picked up a local newspaper will have seen persistent allegations that councils profit from the over-zealous enforcement of unreasonably onerous rules. The issue has become a growing flash point for councils following the more widespread introduction of controlled parking zones (CPZs), within which residents have to pay for permits to park outside their own homes.

What is more, few believe that surpluses must be earmarked for transport and environment work.

From next year, councils will have to publish a parking enforcement policy and annual report, following the somewhat belated activation of parts of the Transport Management Act 2004. This should bring clarity to how much money councils receive from parking fines and where it goes. The act has also changed the name of parking attendants to 'civil enforcement officers', with 'warden' reserved for those still employed by the police.

Kelvin Reynolds spent 25 years as a parking manager in local government before becoming director of technical services at the British Parking Association (BPA), which has both council and contractor members.

"The main issue is to ensure that enforcement is done fairly, legitimately and transparently," he says. "You need to be transparent because councils can be seen to have a vested interest because they are setting charges and collecting the revenue. It has to be clear that the money is being reinvested in transport, highways and the environment."

Mr Reynolds says only a few councils with busy commercial districts - notably Birmingham, Manchester and Westminster city councils - make any significant surplus from their parking fine income.

"People think there is a lot of money made, but most local authorities do not make a great deal from parking, either because there are low volumes of parking, or they do little to enforce it or fines are set low," he says. "I cannot say that using parking for revenue raising never happens, but it should not, and our model contract discourages it and also any setting of targets to reward enforcement officers by the number of tickets issued. It is unlawful to set parking fines to generate revenue."

David Sparks (Lab), chair of the Local Government Association's regeneration and transport board, says there was some over-zealous enforcement in the early days in London. Under the national media's gaze, this heavy-handed approach led to allegations that parking enforcement is a revenue raising tool. "The message we have sent out through the LGA is clear that parking enforcement is a part of traffic management and not of revenue raising," Cllr Sparks says.

As council enforcement becomes more widespread, he believes the public will see the results and accept the system. "My own experience as a local councillor has been that there is a big demand for better enforcement from the public generally," he says.

"There are real problems of road safety and congestion caused by bad parking that irritate the public and can be partly addressed by better enforcement. "Ultimately, local politicians have to get re-elected and if you do not do the right thing you will pay the price."

Cllr Sparks adds robustly that the minority who don't pay fines "deserve to be pursued". He sees parking policy as valuable for dealing with congestion and road safety problems, but is less sure about its use for other purposes, for example to discourage driving to out-of-town retail centres by requiring them to provide relatively few spaces.

"If people want to discourage that, it is a matter for the planning system," he says. "You can be too clever by half, and this is a transport issue alone. You cannot retain credibility in traffic management if you are trying to use it for other things."

Graeme Fitton, chair of the County Surveyors' Society transport committee, says council parking enforcement should be seen as part of "a strategy to combat congestion and pollution and deal with issues of liveability".

"Do that and it helps the relationship with the public, who would clearly resent it being used for revenue raising. It is a demand management tool not a tax," he says.

Managing demand can however take councils into choppy waters. In Islington LBC few households have off-street parking, as a result of which the entire borough has been designated a CPZ. Zealous enforcement sparked such a hostile a public reaction that in 2005 it became the first London borough to stop clamping vehicles.

The then leader Steve Hitchins (Lib Dem) said at the time: "We want our parking policies to be understood as firm but fair, and as a council we want to show that we do listen."

How enforcement officers react to rule breaches and interact with the public is ultimately a matter of their training, which the industry is trying to improve so that officers are seen as skilled people doing a socially important job.

Mr Reynolds says parking suffers from high staff turnover, rather than staff shortages. "People get trained then go out on the streets and decide it is not for them and leave and that investment in training is wasted," he says.

The BPA also tried to rebut false media allegations about parking, to try to kill off the perception that officers are paid per ticket, and urges both contractors and councils "not to do anything that could leave them exposed to media attack".

Perhaps one solution is to supplement cash payment and human enforcement officers with virtual equivalents. Westminster City Council last year scrapped parking meters and replaced them with the first parking pay-by-phone service, not least because it had discovered that organised crime was involved in stealing from meters. It has since also accepted credit card payments.

Westminster's very well-trained virtual parking enforcement officer 'Ron', whose helpful animated presence can be seen on the council's website, offers advice. At least there, motorists don't have any excuses about not knowing the rules.

Improving he Environment

Last year Richmond upon Thames LBC became the first to set charges for residents' parking permits according their vehicle's CO2 emissions.

Those with the worst-polluting vehicles pay up to three times as much as do those with low-emission cars. The change was controversial, but a consultation had shown majority support among residents. Charge bands depend on CO2 emission ratings, or on cylinder capacity for vehicles registered before 2001. Second and subsequent vehicles in a household are charged at 50% more than the first permit.

Nottingham City Council is the first to plan a workplace parking levy, something councils have had powers to impose since the Transport Act 2000.

Employers who provide staff parking spaces will pay a charge per space, which they can pass on to employees if they choose. Some 500 large employers would be liable for the levy, which has been fixed at 185 a year per space from April 2010. Businesses with fewer than 10 spaces are exempt.

The idea is to discourage car commuting, which is an attractive option for anyone who enjoys a guaranteed parking space. Nottingham expects to raise 5.6m from the levy in its first year, rising to 11.3m by 2015. The money will be used to support an extension to the city's tram system, subsidise more bus services and improve Nottingham station.