2 March 2018
Greens are concerned that plans for tackling rogue private parking companies lack teeth. We have written to the Minister outlining the need for tougher measures, drawing on our local experience of Earlham House shopping centre where the car park owner and parking operator exploit the lack of parking legislation and have made the traders’ lives a misery.
Councillor Denise Carlo
City of Norwich
c/o 213 College Road
Norwich NR2 3JD
Mr Rishi Sunak MP
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State
Housing, Communities and Local Government
2 Marsham Street
London SW1P 4DF
2 March 2018
CC Sir Greg Knight MP East Yorkshire
Dear Mr Sunak,
Re. Parking (Code of Practice) Bill
I am writing to you as a district councillor to welcome the Government's backing for the Private Member's Bill aimed at tackling rogue private parking companies.
However, I fear that a proposal for a Code of Practice on its own will not address the scams employed by private parking operators. In order to give teeth to a Code, new legislation will be necessary to address matters such as private landowners having the right to set terms and conditions in exchange for permission to park and to apply and 'enforce' them in an unreasonable way and use of CCTV on private land for gathering driver data. Any new guidance concerning private parking companies must be flexible and subject to regular review because private parking operators are adept at exploiting loopholes for financial gain.
These conclusions are based on my long standing experience of a private parking regime at a neighbourhood shopping centre (Earlham House) in the ward I represent, comprising 14 small retail units with 86 flats above, a local supermarket and 44 customer parking spaces.
So lucrative is the income generated from 'managing' the 44 parking spaces that when the former owner, Bellgold Properties Ltd, sold the freehold of Earlham House last April, the company retained the two small car parks and the services of a parking company called National Parking Enforcement Ltd (NPE) to 'manage' parking.
NPE pockets parking 'fines' incurred in the first free hour and Bellgold takes the parking charges of £1 per hour levied thereafter. Parking had been free for two hours, but last summer Bellgold and NPE threatened to reduce it to just ten minutes which would have killed off the shops and following a public outcry, they increased free parking to one hour. Payment to park at Earlham House can only be made via text or on-line. (£1 per hour after the first free hour) which discriminates against people without access to technology.
NPE runs their side of the arrangement with a heavy hand. The company operates three CCTV cameras to churn out parking charge notices (PCNs) to drivers for breaching its terms and conditions. Since 2013, I have been inundated by numerous complaints from Norwich residents who have been issued with intimidating letters by NPE and their various debt recovery agents for minor infringements. Bellgold and NPE treat customer parking at Earlham House as a 'cash cow 'and all the small traders at Earlham House have suffered from loss of business as a result.
Arising from my experiences of the Earlham House situation, I would like to outline below some of the areas that the Government will need to address.
1. Clamp Down On Unreasonable Terms and Conditions And Petty Enforcement
NPE's advertises three terms and conditions on their signage (cluttered by a large amount of text and difficult to read) at Earlham House. All three are money spinners that have been honed by NPE to exploit weak regulation:
i) “All vehicles must be parked wholly within a marked parking bay.”
About eighty percent of the drivers' complaints I receive relate to parking on white lining marking the parking bays. Most involve parking one or two tyres on a white line for a few minutes whilst the driver nips into a shop. More often than not, the car tyre is only just touching the white line but this certainly doesn't prevent parking in the adjoining bay.
ii) “No parking in a parent and child bay unless accompanied out of the vehicle by a child 12 years old or less.”
The parent/child space is directly outside Earlham House Post Office. Some parents leave their child in the vehicle and pop into buy a stamp as their child remains visible from the secondary payment counter which faces on the parent/child space. Parents are unreasonably expected to to remove a child even if asleep and/or another adult is in the car with them.
Iii) “No parking in a disabled bay whilst failing to clearly display a valid blue badge on the vehicle dashboard”.
I have dealt with cases where the driver has displayed a blue badge which had not been picked up by the angle of the CCTV. In other cases, the disabled drivers have not had their blue badge with them. My understanding is that display of a blue badge is not enforceable on private land and is not a legal requirement under the Equality Act. Disabled drivers and the elderly in particular have suffered great distress as a result of receiving a PCN demanding payment and several have vowed not to shop at Earlham House again.
On any basis, the above rules contrived by NPE Ltd are petty and unreasonable grounds for issuing demands for £60 rising to £100 if not paid within fourteen days and if not paid, passing the keeper details to a debt recovery agency which issues intimidating letters for payment and threatens to take the vehicle keeper to court.
2. Address The Contract Consent Trap
Under current rules, drivers parking at Earlham House are caught in a trap. Drivers unwittingly enter into a contract with the parking operator, NPE over its terms and conditions which the company enforces unreasonably. The Independent Appeals Service will only rule on whether the PCN was issued properly and not whether the terms and conditions and NPE's claim to be in minor breach are justified
As an example, I enclose the decision of the IAS Independent Ajudicator (relating to a PCN issued on 8 December 2017 with keeper details redacted), in the case of a parent who parked in a parent/child bay at Earlham House and went into the PO for 2 minutes to buy some Calpol. The parent left their child in the vehicle as the child was unwell and could be clearly seen by the parent throughout the transaction. The IAS dismissed the appeal on grounds that the terms and conditions were clearly signed and so the issue amounted to 'breach of contract'. The Adjudicator states:
“The contractual offer is made by the signage being prominently displayed, the Appellant accepted the offer by parking their vehicle. The consideration is the legally binding promise to pay the Parking Charge in accordance with the terms and conditions of parking as outlined in the signage.”
The IAS said that they were unable to take into accounting any mitigating factors (ie the child was poorly) and “only the Operator can consider mitigation”.
This is a nonsensical state of affairs which the Government needs to address head-on otherwise parking enforcement companies will continue to fleece drivers without good reason and small independent traders will suffer as a result.
Improvements to the parking appeals system through a Code of Conduct will not stop rogue parking companies from ripping off drivers on spurious grounds. On several occasions, Earlham House drivers have appealed to the IAS and NPE has not bothered to answer, leading the IAS to dismiss the case. However, this has not deterred NPE from continuing to issue PCNs for the same reasons because their business model relies on a percentage of drivers feeling intimidated and paying up.
3. Ban Use Of CCTV For Catching Out Drivers
NPE has installed three CCTV cameras for harvesting vehicle registration numbers from 44 parking spaces. In my view, this is a breach of privacy as there are no warning signs about the presence of CCTV and the first that drivers are aware of their vehicle having been photographed is when they receive a PCN demanding £60.
I checked with Norwich City Council Planning Manager on whether planning permission was required for CCTV and was told 'yes'. I was further advised that whilst the City Council would write to NPE and inform them of the need to to submit a planning application, the Council would not enforce the requirement if the company failed to respond, and, that even if they did submit a planning application, the Council would grant permission as there were no planning grounds for refusal. This makes a mockery of the need for planning permission.
In 2014, the Government stopped local authorities from using CCTV in spy cars to catch out drivers parking on-street by introducing a clause in the Deregulation Bill going through Parliament; this was backed up by a statutory instrument once the bill had been enacted.
In my view, the Government should regulate private parking operators in a manner that is consistent with restrictions placed on local authorities in their management of on-and off-street parking .
4. Create Extra Safeguards On DVLA Handing Over Information Without 'Reasonable Cause' And Bring In Higher Application Charges For Information
The DVLA should not hand over 'keeper of the vehicle' details in the absence of detailed information showing 'reasonable cause'. Parking one tyre on a white line for a few minutes and parents not removing their child from a vehicle parked in a parent/child bay, for example, should not be accepted as justification.
The Earlham House example below describes where NPE sought to extract parking charges from drivers on spurious unlawful grounds and were assisted in their scam by the DVLA passing a substantial amount of keeper information.
In late 2014, NPE erected a No Entry sign at one of two entrances to the lower car park, even though the access arrangements had been operating for forty years. Drivers received £60 charge notices for entering the car park 'the wrong way'. As a councillor, I received scores of complaints and no doubt the number of drivers who received a notice ran into many hundreds. I challenged the legal basis of an entry charge and after a couple of months NPE agreed to reimburse the drivers who had paid. However, only drivers who contacted NPE were reimbursed and the company undoubtedly made tens of thousands of pounds from unlawful parking charges. In readily handing over driver details to NPE, the DVLA did not check that NPE were acting unlawfully in imposing a charge by claiming that drivers had entered the car park 'the wrong way'.
Private parking operators should also be required to pay a significantly higher application fee to the DVLA in return for driver information.
5. Set A Legal Maximum Charge
NPE and their debt recovery agency vary the parking charges up and down. This yo-yoing increases the pressure on drivers to stump up payment quickly even if NPE's claims lack justification. NPE operates the following regime:
- PCN demanding £60 rising to £100 if not paid or appealed within 14 days;
- Driver appeals to NPE who invariably dismiss appeal and re-state a demand for a 'discounted' payment of £60 by 14 days, rising to £100 after 14 days;
- Driver has 21 days from date of NPE's appeal dismissal in which to appeal to the IAS. NPE's dismissal contains an added catch, 'Please note that if you wish to appeal to IAS the reduced charge will no longer be offered and the full charge will be outstanding if your appeal is not successful.' The higher charge is designed to act as a deterrent against appealing to the IAS.
- If the driver doesn't pay up, NPE pass their case to their debt recovery agency who send several letters demanding £160 or else face court action.
You can imagine the effect of strongly worded demands for money on vulnerable groups such as the elderly, disabled and people on low incomes.
In conclusion, I hope that the Government will comprehensively address the scandal of private parking companies who exploit the current lack of regulation. I look forward to seeing more detail and am keen to be kept informed of progress.
I look forward to hearing from you.