Can council rise to the challenge of real parking reform?

IN the middle of August there was a flurry of interest in the government s new rules on parking enforcement. Headlines ran: Councils told to stop clamping motorists , which thankfully Camden has stopped. Transport Minister Rosie Winterton commented: T

IN the middle of August there was a flurry of interest in the government's new rules on parking enforcement. Headlines ran: "Councils told to stop clamping motorists", which thankfully Camden has stopped.

Transport Minister Rosie Winterton commented: "There is a perception that motorists are unfairly penalised by parking attendants who are only interested in issuing as many tickets as possible. It is vital that we increase public confidence in parking enforcement by making it fairer". She could have been talking directly to Camden, which issues the second greatest number of tickets in Britain.

The government claimed that the rules were "motorist friendly" and set out the objectives of parking policies which included:

managing traffic to ensure expeditious movement of traffic;

improving road safety;

improving the quality and accessibility of public transport;

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meeting the needs of people with disabilities, some of whom will be unable to use public transport and depend on the use of a car;

managing and reconciling the competing demands for kerb space.

And so say all of us.

The rules state that "raising revenue should not be an objective of parking enforcement, nor should authorities set targets for revenue or the number of penalty charge notices (PCNs) they issue".

This should in principle pose a problem for Camden. For years, despite the dissembling claims by councillors and officers, Camden has run parking enforcement in significant measure as a tax farming operation. Camden has become hooked on the annual £20m surplus it makes from on-street parking, which is more than a fifth of the £92m it raises in rates.

It achieves this by high charges for residents permits; high charges for parking in pay and display (P&D) bays; and above all by setting a high - and arbitrary - target to National Car Parks, its enforcement contractor, for issuing 389,000 tickets annually.

This target results in NCP flooding our streets with parking attendants (PAs) intent on achieving their target of 1.6 tickets per hour to get a bonus (after many denials, recently admitted by NCP, see H&H editorial September 27) to get the overtime that is going and to keep their jobs. The direct consequence of the targets is ticket for trivialities:

1. On August 16 the Ham& High carried a piece about a PA ticketing cars blocked in by fire engines attending a fire in Heath Street

2. On July 12 at 10.01, one minute after the CPZ started, I saw a PA ticketing a vehicle parked in a P&D bay in Swains Lane where I live. The PA handbook clearly requires an "observation period: minimum of five minutes"

3. On August 2 a cab driver told me he had to drop off an elderly woman of 90-odd who had a zimmer frame, and needed help to go to the hairdresser on Swains Lane. He double parked. A PA saw exactly what was going on, but nonetheless started to ticket him.

None of these incidents is related to the proper objectives of parking policy, and the third runs counter to one of them. The first example was unbelievably crass even by Camden/NCP standards; the second was against the rules and completely irrelevant to the rationale claimed by Camden for introducing the CPZ in our area, namely stopping commuters parking; while the third was unbelievably unpleasant, even by Camden/NCP standards.

Also to achieve their targets PAs identify "hot spots" including:

q bays where people make regular mistakes, such as where P&D bays abut residents' bays and the P&D machine is located confusingly at the junction of the two;

q overlaps and ambiguities between residents and business parking bays;

q on Sundays many people are not aware of the border of enforcement near to Camden market, and are not aware that Parkway is enforced. It is a happy hunting ground for PAs.

"The Secretary of State recommends that cameras are only used where enforcement is difficult or sensitive. Camera enforcement is best used where PA patrols are not viable, such as in no-stopping areas". This should apply to the money collection system at the junction of Theobald's Road and Southampton Row, which collected £2.7m over a year - £7,000 a day in tax - and to Smart cars waiting to entrap motorists for trivialities.

But will these new rules really pose a problem for Camden? The 1992 rules contained a similar injunction about not relying on-street parking to raise revenue.

In its current consultation paper the Department of Transport cited a 1995 judgment against Camden which made clear that parking legislation was not for revenue raising. Neither of these stopped Camden from engaging in tax farming.

My experience from long ago, both as chief officer in a borough and as a civil servant working on council finances, is that unless councils are either properly locally accountable - which for many reasons they are not - or are tightly controlled by legislation/central government, they are likely to abuse "rules" if it suits them.

Regrettably, common sense is not a quality that is prized in enough councils, particularly ours - "common sense Camden" is an oxymoron.

The only ways to stop Camden profiting from parking enforcement are to reduce the fine by a third to wipe out the surplus; to legislate that councils must not make a surplus of more than (say) 10 per cent over expenditure from their on-street parking operation, taking one year with another; or to require them to remit a surplus to the Lottery Fund.

Otherwise we have to wait to the next election to get rid of Cllr Greene, who has direct responsibility for the Parking Stasi, and Cllrs Moffitt and Marshall, respectively leader and deputy leader, who are too weak to reign him in.

Alex Henney was chief housing officer at Haringey Council, and was seconded to the civil service for a review of housing policy. He played a major part in stopping Camden's ''incompetent and wasteful'' house building programme. He is General Secretary of the London Motorist's Action Group.