The nitty gritty of Camden Council's iniquitous tax farming regime

BY ALEX HENNEY of the London Motorists Action Group One reason why Labour lost the Camden election a year ago was dislike of the council s unpleasant parking enforcement. I leafleted all of Highgate ward against Cllrs John Thane and Maggie Cosin, who were responsible for enforcement policy, and they both d

One reason why Labour lost the Camden election a year ago was dislike of the council's unpleasant parking enforcement. I leafleted all of Highgate ward against Cllrs John Thane and Maggie Cosin, who were responsible for enforcement policy, and they both did badly and lost their seats; someone leafleted 8,000 cars in marginal wards; parents campaigned against school run tickets.

The council effectively sets its enforcement contractor NCP targets of 389,000 per year for penalty charge notices (PCNs), and 8,000 for towing. NCP achieves the targets to make a profit by driving the parking attendants. They have to achieve an average of 1.6 tickets an hour; it posts weekly performance figures in the office; gets rid of those PAs who significantly 'under' perform and rewards those who 'over' perform with overtime and quarterly bonuses of £250.

A lever that NCP has over some PAs is that they are new to the country and do not know the ropes, and some are probably 'illegals'.

To deliver, the PAs penalise motorists for trivial offences such as overstaying a minute or two at a pay-and-display bay; ghost tickets that are not put on vehicles; the PAs learn where the signs are not clear, to ticket confused motorists; they wait out of parking zone hours to catch motorists on double yellow lines of no functional use; they ticket people who put the correct date and time but innocently select the wrong day on scratch cards.

Suspensions are a nice little earner too; the Smart cars sit for hours in flytraps (such as beside St Pancras Station) clicking motorists as they inadvertently make a wrong turn; not renewing resident parking permits in time; CCTV on the trick chicane in Grafton Road where people were fined on Christmas and Boxing days; towing vexatiously for overstaying by 15 minutes.

The council harasses and penalises us for trivialities and entraps motorists in micro-bureaucracy that is loaded against them and in which they flounder, under the pretence of parking and traffic management. The real purpose of 85 per cent of the PCNs is to generate revenue. What Camden gets NCP to do is an abuse of the purpose of the Road Traffic Act 1991, which is stated as being "to secure the expeditious, convenient, and safe movement of vehicular and other traffic".

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The ultimate unpleasantness in Parking Services' armoury is to send round private bailiffs to threaten people. In July 2005, two days after I sent the council a cheque for £300 for two PCNs for trivial offences, two men who looked like bouncers from a Soho club appeared at my door to demand the debt plus a £750 fee for themselves. I take the strongest objection to being 'robbed' in my house, the more so by agents of the council to whom for over 35 years I have paid more than half a million pounds in rates, in current money terms.

Mr Rudy Bright, who runs Parking Services, claimed the fee "was in accordance with the regulations" and was for six visits by a bailiff when letters were left in my house. There were no visits and no letters. Subsequently the bailiff company told me there had been three phantom visits with a vehicle in attendance to take away goods (£260) - it could not even lie consistently.

I complained to the Local Government Ombudsman. Council officers concocted several cock and bull stories to try to cover their backs and the bailiffs; stated that they relied on the word of the bailiffs; and effectively insinuated that my wife and I lied under oath.

The Ombudsman found that the council had been at fault both in failing to control its agent and in how it handled my complaint. I asked Ms. Moira Gibb, the chief executive, to hold a disciplinary proceeding into Mr Bright's behaviour. She claims this is happening - but in secret. She recently wrote: "Parking Services investigate thoroughly each case where it has been suggested that bailiff letters have not been sent or bailiff visits not been made". Surely we should expect better than this rot from a woman to whom we pay a salary of £170,000 and who with overheads and secretary costs us about £300,000 a year.

Four weeks after the election, several colleagues and I met Keith Moffitt, the Liberal Democrat leader of the council, and Michael Greene, the Conservative councillor responsible for the Environment.

We hoped there would be a radical change in the council's parking enforcement policies, and "regime change" in Parking Services. We suggested that the council review its bailiff practices, and look at past records to see who might have been defrauded and get them repaid by the bailiffs.

Judge politicians not by what they say, but by what they do. The inanities continue, resulting in a continuing succession of stories in the local Press. Moffitt and Greene have done nothing to deal with the council's failure to control its bailiffs, let alone look at how many other residents have been defrauded.

Thus we had the contemptible episode in February of the council sending bailiffs to frighten and defraud a 77-year-old widow who had paid her PCN (for a triviality) last summer. And two weeks ago two bailiffs attempted to defraud a disabled man, who has multiple sclerosis, and his wife of £420.

Although the council has reduced clamping, it has increased PCNs, towing, ticketing (Camden tops the league for CCTV tickets), and issuing warrants to bailiffs.

Second half of 2006 % increase

on Jun-Dec 05

PCNs 229,291 6

Removals4928 44


Warrants to bailiffs37336+28

Overall the income generated in the parking account for 2006-07 increased from £39.4m to £43.1m, and the surplus from tax farming motorists increased from £14.8m to £18.8m. [When I suggested to Andrew Marshall, the Conservative deputy leader of the council, that vexatious towing should be cut, he said "the council could not afford to lose the revenue"].

So there you have it, tax farming is the name of the game.

Let us be clear - parking enforcement is not rocket science. It could be sorted out if our councillors were not so inept and they, and the relevant officers, understood that councils exist to help residents and ratepayers, not to discipline and harass us, still less to send bully boys round to defraud us.

Come next election, unless they do something about it, we will leaflet against Moffitt and Greene and they will go the way of Thane and Cosin.