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Transport Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 118
Taken before the Transport Committee
on Monday 8 July 2013
Mrs Louise Ellman (Chair)
Mr Adrian Sanders
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Councillor Peter Box, Local Government Association, Nick Lester, Corporate Director, Services, London Councils, Louise Hutchinson, Head of Service, Parking and Traffic Regulations Outside London (Patrol) Adjudication Joint Committee, Councillor Jane Urquhart, Portfolio Holder for Planning and Transport, Nottingham City Council, and Councillor Daniel Astaire, Westminster City Council, gave evidence.
Q87 Chair: Good afternoon and welcome to this meeting of the Transport Select Committee. Would you give your name and the organisation you represent, please?
Councillor Box: Peter Box. I represent the LGA.
Nick Lester: I am Nick Lester from London Councils.
Louise Hutchinson: I am Louise Hutchinson from Patrol-Parking and Traffic Regulations Outside London.
Councillor Urquhart: I am Jane Urquhart, city councillor, Nottingham City Council
Councillor Astaire: I am Daniel Astaire, from Westminster City Council.
Q88 Chair: Thank you very much. Before we start the session, I would like to thank all those who commented on our parking enforcement blog hosted by the Which? Conversation website. Many of the comments we received through that blog have helped to inform our questions in the session today, so I would like to thank everybody who participated.
How can local authorities make sure that there is a common-sense approach in dealing with parking enforcement?
Councillor Box: There is a common-sense approach already. We work very closely, not only with our residents but with businesses, to make sure that they understand what we are trying to achieve, so I believe there is a common-sense approach. We can help play a part in regenerating and creating some jobs and growth through effective traffic management. That is what parking is about. That can help in terms of growth by making sure there are a steady number of customers moving around. I think we already do that.
Q89 Chair: Councillor Astaire, do local authorities adopt a common-sense approach, or do you think things can be improved?
Councillor Astaire: In Westminster, we see parking not as an enforcement issue but as a city management issue. It is about movement and access, to service the 40,000-odd businesses that we have as well as the influx of a million visitors a day, all of whom put a strain on the roadside and the kerbside.
We do try to adopt a common-sense approach, and that is what we call it in the documents that we produce. It is about best managing that space and having the technology and the applications which allow the road space to be effectively managed and for people to know where and how long they can park for, and the ease with which they can park, as well as knowing where they can’t park and what will happen if they park incorrectly.
By moving away from the enforcement model towards marshalling, which we are trying to do-that is set out in our submission-we are adopting a common-sense approach to make it user-friendly and easier for the motorist.
Q90 Chair: Isn’t it possible, though, that more use could be made of informal cautions or warnings rather than imposing penalty charge notices very quickly? Is there any scope for that?
Councillor Astaire: That is what the marshal system is all about. Rather than letting you park there and whacking a ticket on your screen, which is ineffective for us because we would rather people were compliant, the marshals and the bay sensor technology that we have, together with the app that you can download, all allow you to find ways of finding a parking space before you get to the ticket stage. The marshals will say, "Well, you can’t park here, but on our screen we can see that there’s a parking space two roads away. Why don’t you go and use that?"
Q91 Chair: Ms Hutchinson, the local authorities in London re-offer the penalty charge discount if informal representations have not succeeded. Do you think that should be done outside London?
Louise Hutchinson: There is evidence that it is done outside London, but it can vary between local authorities. They will have different approaches to doing that. Picking up on the common sense issue, as other speakers have said it is about understanding the local community, managing the varying demands on that and communicating what the council is trying to achieve.
If people understand what the council is trying to achieve, they may have more acceptance of the system. There is evidence that some councils will make a note, and if somebody is receiving a penalty charge notice for the first time they wouldn’t actually enforce that. That is not something that would happen across the country.
Q92 Chair: Ms Urquhart, Nottingham has pioneered a particular type of system. In relation to your general parking policies, are there any key performance indicators measured in terms of penalty charge notices being issued in the contract you have?
Councillor Urquhart: No, there aren’t in Nottingham.
Q93 Chair: None at all? Are you sure about that?
Councillor Urquhart: We don’t have a contract. We brought our parking services back in-house in April 2012. We used to run a contracted-out operation but one of the decisions we made last year was to bring our parking operation back in-house so that it could become, as Daniel was describing, much more a part of our general enforcement and "competent guardians of the city" response. Our parking enforcement officers work alongside anti-social behaviour officers, noise nuisance officers, dog wardens and so on, responding to issues within local communities, which enables them to run a system that is about initially advising, warning and then ticketing, rather than moving straight to ticketing.
That was a big change for us, and it was a deliberate move to say that parking enforcement is part of a bigger thing. It is part of a more general enforcement activity and it is about needing to be responsive to all of our communities. It is not just about the city centre and what happens there. It is about what happens in local communities, where local people might be particularly affected by people coming in and parking outside their houses. For us it is about responsiveness.
Q94 Chair: Councillor Astaire, do you have any key performance indicators that involve the issuing of penalty charge notices in Westminster?
Councillor Astaire: No.
Q95 Chair: Is that a categorical no?
Councillor Astaire: Yes. Westminster has been subject to much myth and fantasy about the way that we run our parking service. Our KPIs are focused on ensuring compliance and that people park properly, not on the number of tickets that are issued. Compliance is key in a city like Westminster.
Q96 Chair: Mr Lester, what do you think about the issue of local authorities acting in a reasonable manner? From your experience in London, would you say that local authorities act in a reasonable manner in relation to parking enforcement?
Nick Lester: There are always going to be occasions when motorists don’t like what has happened. In a large system there are always going to be occasions where mistakes are made. But by and large, I think most local authorities do act very responsibly, because they know that the main people they are dealing with will be either their own residents or visitors who keep the economy of their area active. They have to be very sensitive to that in all that they do.
In response to your question about KPIs, I can tell you that when we did a quick survey last week of the London boroughs, and, albeit that we only got two-thirds of them to respond in that time scale, not one of those uses PCN issue as a KPI.
Q97 Chair: There is often a lot of public suspicion that parking enforcement policies are about raising revenue and nothing else. What can be done to convince the public that that is not the case? Councillor Box, how do you see that nationally?
Councillor Box: The first thing to say is that it is not true that we can do that. We are not allowed to raise revenue through car parking in that way-but I accept the point that clearly we need to work closely with our residents and businesses to make sure they understand why parking charges are implemented. It is a slow process persuading people why it is being done.
I would refer you to some of the cases we have seen, including one, which was included in our evidence, in Aberystwyth. There was no traffic management for a period of some 12 months, and when the traffic wardens reappeared on the street they were applauded, because there had been chaos. On some occasions altercations led to scuffling. By and large, people do know if they have parked where they should not have parked. The figures show that fewer than 1% of people actually appeal once they have received a ticket. General understanding is creeping in.
Q98 Chair: Councillor Astaire, do the people of Westminster cheer when the traffic wardens appear?
Councillor Astaire: No-and nor do some of your colleagues who write to me about the tickets they get outside their own homes. It is really important to understand why parking enforcement is there. We need to make sure people accept the argument that we have to service businesses, such as the huge licensed trade in the centre of London and the huge retail and office environments, all of which need regular servicing day and night.
We need to make sure that space is free and appropriate for all these businesses to work, together with the residents, who need to live and park as close to their own homes as they can, and the people who come in to use the car parks. I think people accept that, as long as you are not capricious, you are clear and fair, and your policies are set out and understandable.
People moan about parking enforcement because at times it is so effective. When they do something wrong, whether it is seen or perceived as being wrong or not, they often get a ticket for that, and no one likes being caught out. The aim of the service is to ensure a smooth flow through the city. A lot of people understand and respect that, which is why they pay when they get the tickets.
Q99 Chair: You said the public understand if your policies are set out. Where are they set out?
Councillor Astaire: We produce a document every year called "Park Right". It is available in hard copy and it is also on our website. We are very transparent about what we use the money for. We print out a document every year which explains where parking income goes, what the revenue is spent on and what our costs are. We try to set out to everyone what the rules are and where the money goes.
Q100 Karl McCartney: I want to go back to what Councillor Box said about being unable to raise revenue through parking tickets. Surely there is some form of profit made by any council that runs a parking ticketing organisation. I would have thought that none of them runs at a loss-although maybe the Councillors might want to put me right on that.
Parking aside-this is not just about parking but about running the parking ticketing operation-surely most councils would make some money from that. I think Councillor Astaire just hinted at that. I am thinking about what sort of figures those might be. I know that for Westminster they will be very different from the figures elsewhere in the country.
Councillor Astaire: We are very different from everyone else, and we are not embarrassed to say that. We published the fact that our surplus last year was £36.6 million.
Q101 Karl McCartney: Just from parking tickets?
Councillor Astaire: No, not from parking tickets: from parking, period. That is from on-street compliant parking after all the costs of the parking service.
Q102 Karl McCartney: But just from your parking ticketing operation; do you split that down or not?
Councillor Astaire: No, but what I can tell you is that the costs of running the enforcement service are broadly matched by the income from enforcement. That is broadly cost-neutral.
Councillor Box: I apologise if I was not clear. What I meant to say was that it is not a revenue-raising exercise. Revenue is clearly raised through car parking. The figure nationally in 2011-12 was £411 million net. When you put that against the amount we spend nationally on transport of just over £8 billion, there is a 20 times difference. It is also interesting to note that over the last two years car parking charges have been increased by 1.25%, which in actual fact is a fall in real terms.
Nick Lester: I would add some information for Mr McCartney. We have disaggregated for London. The net surplus on parking enforcement activities in London for 2011-12 was £13 million.
Q103 Karl McCartney: That is very helpful. That is what I was really after.
Nick Lester: Although £13 million is a lot to any individual, in the grand scheme of things it is not a great deal of money.
Q104 Karl McCartney: Councillor Urquhart, you have taken it back in-house.
Councillor Urquhart: Yes. As in Westminster, the parking enforcement operation that we run covers its own costs.
Q105 Karl McCartney: It washes its face, basically.
Councillor Urquhart: It washes its face but doesn’t do anything else. The additional income that we get from parking is the money that people either pay into parking meters to pay the fee or at some car parks that we own. The enforcement operation does not make us a surplus.
Q106 Mr Sanders: How limited by legislation is the use of revenue from parking penalties? Are you able to use any of it, or is it absolute that not a penny raised from parking fines can be used for other purposes?
Nick Lester: In London the biggest share of any surplus goes to support the concessionary fare scheme, the Freedom Pass. That costs the London boroughs £320 million a year. It easily absorbs any surplus that exists.
Q107 Mr Sanders: Is that just an arrangement for London, or are there councils outside London that do something similar?
Nick Lester: It is within the statutory framework as set out in the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, which effectively defines what any surpluses can be spent on as improving the roads or improving the public transport system.
Louise Hutchinson: It is the same outside London as well. One of the things that we may be referring to today is the use of annual reports by councils. One of the important features of those is that when they set out in the financial information that there is a surplus-and there is not a surplus in all cases-there is also a list of items that it is spent on. That, again, can go some way towards increasing the public’s understanding of what is taking place.
Q108 Mr Sanders: But there is no limit on the actual parking charges in your parking charge income-not your penalties, but the bit you pay to park your car.
Nick Lester: It is still subject to the same controls.
Q109 Mr Sanders: Is there a perverse incentive to increase parking charges because that is one of the few revenue streams that local authorities, particularly unitary authorities, which don’t have any tiers beneath them, can rely on? I am interested in that because there does seem to be a difference between parking charges in town council areas and those in single-tier authority areas.
Councillor Box: We don’t set out to antagonise our residents, as has been indicated. It is trying to achieve a balance. The point that Mr Lester made-and you have made the point as well-was about the difference between authorities. There are some rural authorities, for example, that actually subsidise some of the services provided. The revenue stream would help with that. There are some cities that pay for park and ride. It is different across the country depending on the different kinds of areas. All the revenue that we receive is, as Mr Lester said, ploughed back into transport in its widest sense.
Q110 Mr Sanders: But car parking is not a statutory duty for local authorities in the way that education and social services are, is it? If you are a town council that precepts, you can spend 100% of that money on subsidising your car parks, but if you are a single-tier authority that has first of all to meet the demands of the statutory services, what is left over has to go to the non-statutory services. Here you have this wonderful income stream of car parking charges that you can tap into. Isn’t there an incentive to tap into that if you are single-tier authority, because things are tight and it is one of the few income streams you control to some extent?
Nick Lester: There are limits on how much you can increase parking charges, because of the effect it would have on the local economy. The general advice that we, and lots of other people, give is that you set your parking charges to achieve about 85% or 90% occupancy of spaces. That gives you a turnover to enable shoppers to come in for shopping and so on.
If you increase your charges above that, you get lots of empty spaces and the retailers will not welcome that. If your charges are much less, you then get lots of people circling the blocks looking for an empty parking space and that causes congestion and pollution. It does not do anybody any good. The practical ability of local authorities to say, "We’re going to increase our charges to get a bigger revenue stream," is very limited.
Q111 Mr Sanders: There is a bit of unfairness there between the town that has a parish or town council that can subsidise its car parking charges and the single-tier authority next door, whose car park charges are that much greater. It may well be that they can’t go too far without hurting trade, but the impression is that they certainly go to the maximum, whereas neighbouring towns can get a better deal.
Nick Lester: But the problem if you have your charges too subsidised and too low is that you don’t get any more people coming into the town; they just can’t find any spaces to park. This was an experience in Wales and Scotland, where the Governments of Wales and Scotland said that all hospital parking should be free. Immediately, hospitals close to town centres found that their car parks were completely full of all sorts of people, so that real patients and visitors could not find a place to park. Therefore they did not benefit from free parking at all.
Q112 Iain Stewart: I would like to ask about the challenges to penalty notices from people claiming that the signage was missing, wrong or unclear. Do you keep data on that, and if so, what does it show?
Councillor Astaire: We try to make sure that our signage is as clear as possible. We also try to be quite inventive with the way that we allow our bays to be used, so that they are as flexible as possible.
You may have some mixed-use bays. I can think of one around Piccadilly which is a taxi bay at certain times of the night because it is outside a night club, but during the day when that club is not in operation it is a pay-and-display bay. There are some people who complain about the signage and say that tickets have been generated from this, but when you read it, it is clear. You just need to take the time to read it.
If a sign is unclear and someone tells us that it is unclear, we will go and change it. If an appeal goes through because of that, we will look at how many people have been affected by it, what it means, and what we can do to remedy it. It is all about a fair and transparent approach.
Councillor Urquhart: I agree. Some types of signage can seem a bit odd to people. Certainly in Nottingham we have on a number of occasions sought permission from the Department for Transport to use signs that we believe are going to be clearer for people rather than the initial sign-the first one from the Department for Transport that you might come to. We have found it helpful to seek to use signs of the greatest possible clarity.
For example, for our clear zone and bus lanes we have used signs that we felt were clearer than the original DFT recommended ones. We did not feel they were going to give motorists sufficient information, so we sought permission to use bespoke, slightly different signs that we felt were clearer for motorists. It is very important and people need to know.
Equally, people who are seeking to use bus lanes or to park in particular places need to take on the responsibility to read the information that is there and to try and understand it. That is part of being a responsible citizen. When signage is unclear, and if that is found to be the case on appeal-I am sure Louise will have more information about that-we take every step to rectify that straight away. We not only rectify it ourselves but also provide feedback to the DFT. Sometimes it is about the rules that are imposed upon us in terms of what types of sign we can use.
Q113 Chair: Can you give us an example of something you have changed?
Councillor Urquhart: An example for us in Nottingham would be the sign that is commonly near double yellow lines which says "No Waiting". To some people that is not particularly clear. It does not say "No Parking"; it says "No Waiting". In some places in Nottingham we have used that sign, but we also have a supporting sign beneath it saying that this is a double yellow line area, and that means no parking. That is about the DFT saying to us, "The sign for double yellow lines is"-
Chair: Thank you; we’ve got the point.
Q114 Iain Stewart: I am trying to get a feel of what happens when people appeal against a penalty notice. Roughly what percentage of people say, "I shouldn’t get this ticket because the sign was not there," or it was misleading, or whatever. Is it 10% or 80%? Could you give a rough figure?
Councillor Box: I am not sure that it can be broken down in that way. I know that the proportion of people who appeal against any fine is just less than 1% of the total of people who receive a ticket. Of those about 50% are successful, so that would tend to indicate that the system is working. It certainly did with me when I was in Darlington and I got a ticket.
Q115 Iain Stewart: I am getting the sense that the figures are not broken down. It is a bugbear of mine, because I got done for parking. If you looked really closely the sign was there, but it was not clear to anyone making, I would have thought, a reasonable interpretation of the signage.
I parked in a residents-only bay which was immediately adjacent to a pay-and-display. I bought a ticket but got a notice. I got a complete jobsworth letter back telling me to read the sign properly. It was an honest mistake. I am just trying to establish whether you have mechanisms that deal with that human frailty.
Councillor Astaire: We try to make sure that honest mistakes are properly looked at-but you will see some people who are constantly making the same "honest mistake", so one has to deal with that.
For instance, we have a pay-by-phone system and you can very easily invert the number of the bay in which you are parking when you type it in. I have done this myself. If you have parked at 1234 you might type in 1243, and you would get a ticket for not having shown that you’d paid. If we get an appeal on that basis we look at it and deal with it sensibly and rationally, because it is clearly an honest mistake.
Councillor Box: If we are potentially going to ask people to pay a parking fine, we should make sure that the signs are as clear as possible. I agree entirely with what you say, and the LGA supports that position. Where we get it wrong-and on occasions we do get it wrong-it should be rectified as quickly as possible. The evidence tends to suggest that we do that, because, as I said earlier, we are subject to pressure from our residents, who will not simply stand idly by if we do nothing. The evidence shows that where we get it wrong we do put it right, and we would say that all local authorities should do that.
Q116 Martin Vickers: My question follows on from Mr Stewart’s. You have clarified one of the points I was going to ask about, involving the 1% that are appealed against. Would you accept that that figure does not necessarily give a true picture of the number of people who feel that they have been unjustly issued with a ticket? It is a complex system, and people just shrug their shoulders and think, "Oh, well."
Councillor Box: I don’t think so. In my experience, if people think they are being asked to pay a relatively large amount they are not going to hand it over. I am from Yorkshire, and that would not happen in Yorkshire, I can assure you. We are not going to hand over money without making an appeal if we think it is necessary. I mentioned the fact that I got a ticket about two months ago in Darlington on a Saturday morning. I have to say that the traffic warden was unbelievably courteous and explained how I could appeal. If we get it wrong, it should be rectified.
Louise Hutchinson: I have listened to people on the telephone who ring up to say, "What is the process? I have been given a parking ticket and how do I appeal?" As soon as you talk to people about the fact that they may potentially lose that discount rate, that is a huge factor for people. You are right that the fact that less than 1% appeal is related to that, because people simply feel that it is a step too far to appeal. The people who do come forward and appeal are obviously very determined and will generally put forward a very strong case.
Councillor Box: I would like to rectify something. I don’t know of any local authority that says the discount is not available if you appeal and it is turned down. Every local authority that I know of simply suspends the rebate. If you appeal and you are unsuccessful you would then get the rebate, if you are found to have to pay the fine.
Q117 Chair: Is that true for all local authorities, as far as you know?
Councillor Box: That is my understanding. It is not statutory but I don’t know of any authority that goes against that.
Q118 Karen Lumley: You have talked about "less than 1%." Can you give us some idea how many people in Westminster appeal each year? How many members of staff do you have to employ to deal with these appeals?
Councillor Astaire: I cannot give you the FTE number, but our correspondence is all outsourced and dealt with through our customer service programme. The people are highly trained in what to look for and how to respond properly. I get to see a number, from a perspective of quality assurance. Our formal appeals have dropped to about 5% of all tickets. That is down from 15%. Our number of tickets has also fallen considerably, because of the approach we are taking to try to be fair, and I think that people recognise that.
Q119 Karen Lumley: How long would you expect a decision to take if somebody did appeal?
Councillor Astaire: We have a very strict working day turnaround for our correspondence. We monitor that. That is part of the KPIs of our customer service experience. We try to get everyone’s responses within 14 days.
Nick Lester: In London overall, there were just over 55,000 appeals to the adjudicator last year. They will now all have had a first consideration within 56 days, and most of those are decided on the first time.
Councillor Box: In 2011, 4 million parking tickets were issued.
Louise Hutchinson: Outside London, just over 4 million parking tickets are issued. Our number of appeals is around the 18,000 mark for 2011-12. The number of penalty charge notices issued is showing a slight decrease, and the increases that we have seen over the past five years reflect the numbers of councils coming into the scheme. For instance, with the Traffic Management Act we had a huge number, with 46 councils joining at that point in 2008. It is natural that ticket numbers will increase at that point.
Q120 Chair: Councillor Urquhart, the figures we have show that Nottingham did not challenge 41% of the appeals that went to the adjudicator. Does that suggest that Nottingham is doing something wrong in its basic parking enforcement process?
Councillor Urquhart: No. It suggests, as Daniel was saying before, that if you realise during the process that you may have got it wrong, the right thing to do is to say, "Fair enough, we’ve got this one wrong," at that stage. That is part of the process. There is something about learning through the whole process so that we improve. Since we in-sourced our car parking back to the council the number of penalty charge notices we have issued has gone down by 14%.
Q121 Chair: In what year did you change?
Councillor Urquhart: We changed in April 2012. In the year from April 2012 to April 2013, 14% fewer PCNs were issued than in the previous year under the contract.
Q122 Sarah Champion: Across the country, town centres are struggling for various reasons. We have had a number of representations from small businesses in town centres who are particularly concerned about the negative impact that parking issues can or do have on their business. I am thinking in terms of shoppers gaining access and also of loading and unloading.
Ms Hutchinson and Mr Box, could you talk about that on a national level? And do the rest of the panel have specific examples of good innovation?
Louise Hutchinson: There is evidence that some councils are introducing "parking fee reductions", as they call them. They see that bringing people into the town centre is important. One example that comes to mind is Torbay Council. In their parking annual report, they refer to the fact that they have made reductions at certain times to try to increase that flow in-of people using the shops or the local amenities. You have to balance up the seasonal variations when you have visitors coming in as well. There is evidence of council parking departments working in partnership with chambers of commerce and other business partnerships to try to meet the varied demands that have been talked about today.
Q123 Sarah Champion: Councillor Box, shouldn’t all local authorities be working in that collaborative way?
Councillor Box: There is no doubt a potential decline in high streets. Without any shadow of a doubt, in my opinion, the biggest influence is the internet; it is not car parking charges. To answer the question directly, the evidence shows that local government now has a very strong track record, irrespective of political persuasion and size of authority, of working in partnership with the private sector, with local firms and businesses. We know there are things we can do.
To use my own local authority of Wakefield as an example, we have a new council office which has been located in the centre of the city. We are already finding from local businesses that they have seen an increase in trade. There are things we can do. We are also trialling a "free after 3" parking system, because we know that after 3 o’clock a lot of high streets start to empty. Business says, "That would be helpful to us." We have a strong track record. I do not accept that it is simply car parking charges causing the decline in the high street. The biggest threat is the internet.
Nick Lester: Last year, we published a significant research study of the relationship between parking and high street trade. On parking, it found that availability was a far more important issue to drivers than cost. It also found that parking was far from the most important factor.
The most important factors were the range of shops and the shopping environment. If you don’t have good shops and it’s not very nice to go there, you can have as much free parking as you like but people won’t go, because it is not attractive. For lots of town centres, particularly in London, walking and public transport contributed far more in terms of both footfall and spend than people driving. Initiatives which encourage that are going to help the high street more.
Q124 Sarah Champion: Mr Lester, I have discovered a new phrase-the "millionaires’ club" of people who load and unload and get so many tickets that the cost is now almost being written into the financial projections for business.
Nick Lester: There are some locations where this happens. Councils do work with businesses to try to address that point. In some parts of all our towns and cities space is just so tight that you can’t meet all the demand for space, so it is going to be quite difficult. At the same time, whilst most businesses act as responsibly as they can, we know that some businesses are quite happy just to park wherever they want for loading and unloading and accept the tickets without even trying to avoid them. It is not easy; there is not a simple answer in any one case-but councils do work very closely to try to address the needs of their businesses where they can.
Councillor Astaire: I have a good news story for Westminster. Last summer we faced what could have been a tremendous challenge for the city, with the 2012 Olympics. We were faced with many of our major roads closed throughout central London, with lots of diversions and bays suspended and the like. Through pioneering marshalling, which I discussed earlier, and through freight consolidation, we managed to keep the city going. It shows that when you do apply innovative approaches to the parking problem you really can get some innovative solutions.
We have had a long and collaborative approach with the general freight industry, and we have managed to reduce the number of tickets given to freight vehicles by about 80%. That is by holding seminars and planning seminars, and by working with some of the big companies directly, ensuring that people know how and where to park, producing relevant guides but also being there to inform them and help them understand. We have found that that, coupled with the on-street marshalling that we have, really helps to dissipate that problem.
Councillor Urquhart: There are two things that we have done in Nottingham. In our city centre, as in many city centres, space is obviously at a premium, and we do need to control the on-street spaces and the parking. In one of our streets there are quite a lot of restaurants and a cinema. People said it would be lovely if they could have tables outside in sunny weather. Those were on-street parking bays.
What happens now is that in the winter they are on-street parking bays so that shoppers can use them and get in and out of the shops easily, but in the summer that same road space is used for tables, for sitting out and for floral displays. That is about us saying there are different times of year when there are different uses. It is not all about having the parking bay there because there is revenue; it is about using the road space for the right thing at the right time, and working with the traders to make that work properly.
The other example we have of doing something innovative links to that. Our on-street parking spaces in Nottingham do not have a time limit on how long you can park in them. In most places there are limits of one, two or three hours. In Nottingham we don’t have time limits any more. The length you can stay is price controlled, so the nearer you are to the centre of the city with the shops and all that, the more expensive it is.
Obviously not all the city is covered by this; it is only the core shopping area. The further out you get, the less you pay for your time. We changed that after talking with our business improvement district and business leaders, who felt that would be a helpful way of controlling turnover of spaces but also enabling people to make a choice to stay longer if they wanted to, particularly people who wanted to come in and stay in for an evening film, which would cross over parking time boundaries.
Q125 Karl McCartney: Councillor Astaire, you mentioned the information and personal details given to your parking control people in order to pay for parking. I know there are other companies that do that. Who do you share that information with, and how long do you retain it?
Councillor Astaire: Are you talking about when someone phones in and gives their credit card details? That will be dealt with in accordance with appropriate data protection protocols and policies. I do not have them here, but we can get them sent to you if you want them.
Q126 Karl McCartney: Do you use that for enforcement as well?
Councillor Astaire: No.
Q127 Chair: It has been suggested to us that the Traffic Penalty Tribunal-TPT-and PATAS, the Parking and Traffic Appeals Service, should perhaps be merged or changed in some way. Mr Lester, do you have any views on that?
Nick Lester: It is an interesting idea. The problem I would foresee is the imbalance between what happens in London and what happens in the rest of the country. As Ms Hutchinson has said, the TPT had 18,000 appeals over several hundred authorities. In PATAS there were 55,000 appeals from 33 authorities. It is really quite a different scale of operation. There would be concerns from the London authorities’ point of view as to whether we would end up being expected to cross-subsidise the rest of the country. Currently our appeals costs are about two thirds of TPT’s appeals costs.
Louise Hutchinson: As Mr Lester has said, there is obviously a difference in the number of appeals. There is not too much difference in terms of the penalty charge notices issue. Obviously, the jurisdiction of the Traffic Penalty Tribunal has the potential to grow, because as well as having parking enforcement, with most authorities undertaking that now, bus lane enforcement is still growing, so that will increase. There is always the potential to look at some form of shared service or improving the general public’s understanding of the overall appeal process. I recognise that it is a very different jurisdiction.
Appellants in London have to come to a centre within London. Because the jurisdiction covered by the Traffic Penalty Tribunal covers diverse areas from Carlisle down to Torquay, it is a very different set-up. We have to ensure that the Traffic Penalty Tribunal can provide adjudication in a manner that meets those areas’ needs. That can be either by telephone hearing or by personal hearing in some 30-odd hearing venues that we use across the country. Mr Lester is completely right that we operate in very different ways, but there is always scope for looking to see whether there is any potential for sharing.
Q128 Chair: But you don’t have any specific proposals for change at the moment?
Louise Hutchinson: No. There are things that come to mind, such as whether there are common information portals or systems that could be used that would make it easier for the public to come forward. The Traffic Penalty Tribunal is currently talking to the Scottish adjudication service to look at some shared working there. Certainly the Chair of the PATROL joint committee is very willing to have a conversation with the Chair of London Councils to see if there is any scope for doing something collaboratively, but currently there is nothing set in motion.
Q129 Chair: Councillor Box, do you know of any local authorities who are copying Nottingham in the workplace charging scheme, or who are contemplating it?
Councillor Box: No, not off the top of my head. Perhaps Nottingham might know.
Q130 Chair: Councillor Urquhart, I know that the formal appraisal of the scheme has not taken place yet, but what is your current view, and do you know of any other local authorities who might want to replicate what you have done?
Councillor Urquhart: We are just over one year in, so we do not have a great wealth of study on it. We have embarked right from the beginning on a process of studying the impacts.
Our first year has been a relatively positive one, in that we have seen compliance by the employers who are required to license. We have not had to take any enforcement action under the workplace parking levy at all. We have managed to secure the income stream and it is absolutely ring-fenced for transport projects, those being tramlines and improvement to our station and our subsidised bus network, the Link bus network. In that sense, it has been positive for us.
We have people studying all the potential outcomes for the levy, including the question of whether businesses would choose to relocate elsewhere and whether we would see a decrease in inward investment, and all of those kinds of things. With the caveat that we are only one year in, currently we have not seen businesses moving away and we have seen a very healthy level of interest in inward investment in Nottingham, given the limits of the current overall economic climate that everybody everywhere is suffering from.
We have had initial conversations with some of the local authorities about what we have done, but at the moment none has taken any first steps. I think everyone is waiting to see how it goes and whether we do have the impacts on congestion, for example, that we hope we will have. Of course, those will come when we have also built the public transport alternatives. They don’t come on their own, so to speak.
Q131 Chair: Ms Hutchinson, can you tell me how many local authorities issue an annual report on their parking policies or publicise what they are doing in a similar way?
Louise Hutchinson: Currently it is around the 50 mark. That does not include councils who are producing a report-
Q132 Chair: Fifty local authorities?
Louise Hutchinson: There are 50 local authorities for which we have identified an annual report that is not just a report that has been made to council, but one written for the purpose of informing the public. Obviously, the Traffic Management Act brought in an expectation that councils would produce an annual report. The PATROL joint committee seized the opportunity of the Traffic Management Act to set some standards itself in terms of provision of information to the public through a website and through literature, but also wanted to encourage councils to improve their information to the public.
The award that the joint committee runs is in its fourth year. Previous winners have included Brighton & Hove, Sheffield and York. We currently have a shortlist of councils, with a winner being announced tomorrow. The quality of those reports looked at by the joint committee and the independent review group-which includes representation from the RAC, a communications consultant and a traffic engineer-is improving year by year. It is a pity it is not a requirement rather than an expectation.
Q133 Chair: How many authorities submitted bids to the competition?
Louise Hutchinson: It is a smaller number that submit bids.
Q134 Chair: How many?
Louise Hutchinson: I will confirm it in writing after today, but I would say probably around the 20 mark. The rest of those were sourced by searching through council websites to see what was available.
Q135 Chair: Mr Lester, do you want to comment?
Nick Lester: In addition to those, about 25 London boroughs also produce reports.
Councillor Box: The idea of reports is good. It is important that we keep the public involved. In relation to the question you asked earlier, Chair, about what the public know, this can be used in a way that does engage the public and let them know what we are trying to achieve through car parking charges, in a way that is not universal at the moment.
I would say two things. First, a report has to be in language that is easily understood and not in jargon, so that people can clearly see what the issues are. Secondly, I believe that the system should be voluntary, but I would urge all local authorities to adopt it. I do not think there is a need for any further legislation at this time, when we are coping with a 40% reduction in our budget.
Chair: Thank you very much to everyone for coming and answering our questions.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Caroline Hamilton, Chief Adjudicator, Parking and Traffic Appeals Service, and Caroline Sheppard, Chief Adjudicator, Traffic Penalty Tribunal, gave evidence.
Q136 Chair: Good afternoon and welcome to the Transport Select Committee. Could you give your name and organisation, please?
Caroline Hamilton: I am Caroline Hamilton, Chief Adjudicator at the Parking and Traffic Appeals Service.
Caroline Sheppard: I am Caroline Sheppard. I am the Chief Adjudicator for the Traffic Penalty Tribunal. That covers England and Wales, but obviously not London.
Q137 Chair: It is now five years since the Traffic Management Act regulations came into effect. How has the work of the appeals service changed over that time, and how would you describe it now in terms of effectiveness?
Caroline Hamilton: Perhaps things that we thought would happen have not happened. Aspects of the Act that we thought would have an impact haven’t had an impact-and the other way round, if you see what I mean. One thing in particular is service of the PCN by post to vehicles that have driven away. Prior to the Act that used to be something that generated a large number of appeals. Now we do not get appeals relating to motorists who say that they have driven away. That is not because there are a large number of incidents where the penalties are served by post after a drive-away; it seems that it just does not happen at all. That is something that I would have expected to generate appeals but which simply did not.
There are also the recommendations that we thought would generate a large number of returns to the enforcement authorities for them to consider compelling reasons that the adjudicators had identified. Again that has not had a huge impact. It has not resulted in a large number of appeals being returned to enforcement authorities with recommendations. Those are the two things that instantly spring to my mind that one would have thought would have a much larger impact than they have had. I do not know what Caroline’s experiences are.
Caroline Sheppard: As Louise Hutchinson explained, we obviously had a large increase in the number of councils that joined the outside London scheme immediately afterwards. That flushed out quite a few problems between the counties and the districts. Mr Sanders referred earlier to the different types of authorities. We do get quite a few appeals where people are not quite clear which is the enforcement authority, and this is a new factor under the Act, but that is very technical.
Certainly the ground of appeal of procedural impropriety has been a very useful one in terms of making sure that councils understand the nature of some of the more sensitive appeals. In terms of the compelling reasons, again there has not been a huge impact. We have sent back about 90 since the beginning of the TMA to different local authorities, and with various different approaches. Sometimes the adjudicators perhaps learn as much from that as the authorities do.
Q138 Sarah Champion: Ms Hamilton, could you give me some clarification? You mentioned people who "drive away". I don’t know what you actually mean by that.
Caroline Hamilton: Before the Act, we used to get a large number of disputes as to whether a penalty charge notice had actually been served, either to the vehicle or handed to the driver or whoever appeared to be in charge of the vehicle. That generated a large number of appeals. Part of the wisdom of the Traffic Management Act was to stop that.
Q139 Sarah Champion: They would drive away before receiving the ticket?
Caroline Hamilton: If someone drove away but the enforcement officer had prepared the ticket, under the Act he would still then be entitled to serve it by post. That was a way of stopping what was perceived to be a problem. Motorists were saying that they did not get their ticket and the enforcement authority was saying that they did get their ticket. In order to stop that, if it turned out that the person had in fact parked in contravention and while the officer was in the process of issuing the ticket the motorist drove away, the enforcement authority could still then serve the ticket through the post. But it has not had an impact.
Caroline Sheppard: That brings in the other factor under the TMA, which is camera enforcement. That has had quite a big impact, and probably an increasing one, partly through the use of the CCTV little vehicles that drive around and film. Guidance was written in 2008 about this. It was a new concept in a way, so to some extent the guidance was very broad-brush.
Q140 Chair: Is the guidance being followed now?
Caroline Sheppard: We find areas where it is not. For example, it is meant to be used in areas where enforcement is sensitive, where there have been social problems in terms of civil enforcement officers. In fact, once they start using the CCTV cars of course they do have an impact. Quite rightly, compliance improves-
Q141 Chair: But is the current guidance being followed?
Caroline Sheppard: In most places yes, but we still find areas where, particularly if they are new to camera enforcement, people have not necessarily perceived that there are places where it should be used-for example, outside a school-
Q142 Chair: What do you do if you find that the guidance is being ignored?
Caroline Sheppard: It is a difficult one for adjudicators, because it is not a ground of appeal that guidance was not followed. You cannot allow the appeal for that reason. Initially the adjudicator will adjourn the case, write to the local authority and say, "On the evidence before me it doesn’t appear that the guidance was being followed." For example, it could be in a residential area where you have one-hour restricted parking in the middle of the day to stop railheading and that sort of congestion. Why is the camera car being used, particularly with two people inside it-
Q143 Chair: In those circumstances what would the impact be? Would that affect the judgment you gave?
Caroline Sheppard: We cannot allow the appeal for those reasons.
Q144 Chair: What can you do? If you find there are circumstances where there is an infringement of the current guidance, what it is that you as an adjudicator can do in relation to the authority infringing that guidance?
Caroline Sheppard: There are three things we can do. First, we can adjourn the appeal and send it back to the parking department, saying, "You weren’t using this in accordance with the guidance." More often than not the parking department itself will say, "All right," and they will cancel the ticket. Obviously, one is then on the look-out to see whether we get more similar ones.
Q145 Chair: You appear to have said two contradictory things, though I may have misunderstood you. Are you saying that infringement of the guidance can lead to cancellation of the ticket?
Caroline Sheppard: It can, if we ask them-but they don’t have to do what we ask them to.
Q146 Chair: But it can lead to cancellation of the ticket.
Caroline Sheppard: It can, but if they say, "No, I’m sorry, there was a parking contravention and we used the car," the next thing the adjudicator must do is send it back citing compelling reasons to the chief executive and say, "This doesn’t appear to have been used in accordance with the guidance." In those circumstances, the chief executive will look at it.
Q147 Chair: How often does that happen?
Caroline Sheppard: As I have said, we have sent 90 back over the last five years, but those were not just about CCTV. Normally the parking department itself will put the matter right, and that is how it should be, although clearly they would then need to look at how they are using the car.
Q148 Mr Sanders: Are the actual fines that are levied the same across the country? Is there a set fine for a parking offence?
Caroline Sheppard: There is a statutory instrument that applies to England-but not to London-and Wales has its own. Two bands are set. The higher band is £70, and £35 if paid within 14 days. The lower band is £50, and £25 if paid within 14 days. Councils have to use those two bands. They relate to the type of contravention.
Q149 Mr Sanders: Isn’t there something inherently unfair there, relating to somebody’s ability to pay a fine? Having to pay £25 could be next to nothing to a high earner, but to a low earner that £25 could be quite significant and tip them over the edge. Do you get asked about the level of fines? Who can influence or change what those bandings are?
Caroline Sheppard: I think we are looking at the people who can change it. If you want to change it, Parliament could change it.
Q150 Mr Sanders: Do you get people appealing on the grounds of unfairness-although they can’t, and it would be ruled out of order? Are there people who will still appeal it because they simply can’t afford to pay?
Caroline Hamilton: People do say that the fine is too much and they think it is unreasonable for a short period of contravention. For example, if they only stopped for a few minutes they think it is outrageous that the fine in London is £130.
May I correct one little thing about the CCTV controls that you were talking about earlier? Certainly in London we don’t get CCTV enforcement where a permit or a blue badge, for example, would be on display, because the CCTV observation simply would not be able to see that much detail. That is an area where the guidelines are being followed, certainly in London; I cannot speak for outside London. That is very important.
With regard to your question, if an enforcement authority was not following that guideline, you would be likely to be successful in your appeal. Your appeal would be, "I had a permit," and there would not be any evidence to gainsay that, so you would win your appeal. With regard to other areas, where there could not be a permit or a blue badge, or a reason for being there, CCTV enforcement is used. As long as the enforcement authorities have regard to the guidance, they are acting within the law. It may be slightly different in London from what happens outside London.
Q151 Mr Sanders: You started to answer my question and then zoomed off into another.
Caroline Hamilton: I am sorry; I was keen to clarify the CCTV evidence point.
Q152 Mr Sanders: I understand. You said that some people do complain that the fine is too much.
Caroline Hamilton: Yes.
Q153 Mr Sanders: How many people complain that it is too much, out of the total number of appeals you receive?
Caroline Hamilton: It would not be a ground of appeal. It would be something that would appear in their general representations. It would be along the lines of, "It’s outrageous because I was only there for two minutes and I have incurred this large penalty." Of course there are people that say that the penalty will cause them financial hardship. We can’t alter the penalty amount; that is not something we can do. Our role is simply to apply the law.
Q154 Mr Sanders: But somebody somewhere must have set it. Presumably that was a Minister under a statutory instrument. Maybe we can ask the Minister when we see him shortly. Do they take advice from anybody?
Caroline Hamilton: All the enforcement authorities together-the transport and environment committee of London Councils, together with the Mayor of London-are the ones who set the penalty amounts, but it is not something into which the tribunal or the adjudicators have any input. I assume that the public have an input, because that is the function of London Councils.
Caroline Sheppard: The whole issue of proportionality-although some members of the public use that word and others don’t-often emerges, in the argument that the penalty is disproportionate to what people consider happened. There are varieties, for example when people realise that the penalty for shoplifting is, as it was until very recently, £60. You do look at proportionality across society with these things. It is something that the public are aware of, but it was set in a statutory instrument with the rest of the Traffic Management Act legislation in 2007. At that stage it was set by Ministers who introduced the TMA powers.
Q155 Sarah Champion: I was quite surprised when, on the last panel, the lady from Nottingham said that 41% of Nottingham’s appeals are not being contested by them. There seems to be a problem across local authorities with them not contesting appeals. What does that say to you?
Caroline Hamilton: When an appeal is lodged, the enforcement authority’s role at that stage is obviously to have a look at the evidence and what the grounds of appeal are. If that enforcement authority reads those grounds of appeal and agrees with them, it would be wrong for that authority to decide that it must contest that appeal. If an enforcement authority reviews the case and decides, "Oh yes, there’s more evidence"-or more detail-"here, and we’re not going to contest this," that is something that should be encouraged. It is a good sign, not a bad sign.
Q156 Sarah Champion: What it says to me is that maybe they are making a lot of errors, or there is slightly sloppier practice than you would expect, so they back down when it goes to appeal.
Caroline Hamilton: No. Another thing that can happen-this is unfortunate-is that some motorists won’t engage with the enforcement authorities. They are perhaps hostile to the enforcement authorities. They will tick a box on the form and sign the form. They will then lodge their appeal, and even at appeal stage they may sometimes just tick the box for the grounds of appeal and put "evidence to follow", and produce the evidence they seek to rely on later. That does happen.
Where the vehicle has been sold, for example, and the motorist used to be the registered keeper, they don’t want to be bothered with it. It is not their vehicle any more and it is nothing to do with them. They will lodge their appeal and it takes them a long time to provide that evidence. Once that evidence is provided and the enforcement authority finally have that bit of paper they were waiting for, they are not going to continue to contest an appeal. It would be wrong if they were to do that.
Having said that, of course there must be occasions where enforcement authorities have simply not got their evidence together. Again, it would be wrong for them to contest an appeal if they knew that they were not appeal-ready-that they did not have that evidence and they knew that they were not likely to be successful. It would be wrong if they were to battle on in the hope that they were going to win an appeal when in their hearts they knew that their evidence was not there.
I am not convinced that there is evidence to suggest that they wait for an appeal and then back down because they have not done their homework. Usually the representations that they end up making are the same representations that are set out in the notice of rejection. It is rare for things to have shifted. They have had to go to the trouble of drafting the notice of rejection, which is the letter that essentially tells the motorist why they are going to pursue the ticket. I am not convinced that the lack of contesting of appeals is a major problem. Obviously I speak for London.
Q157 Chair: Ms Sheppard, what is your view?
Caroline Sheppard: It has varied over the years. Certainly the rate of "no contest" has gone down significantly outside London. That is partly because we do monitor it. If an authority suddenly starts "no contesting" a lot of cases, or a high proportion, we look at them in a bit more detail, particularly if we find that the same issues are raised as in the original appeal. Having made it clear that that is the approach we take, I can add that our level is now about 27%, probably for the reason that Caroline Hamilton has given-that councils look at it again. We have had cases, for example, where the rate has been up to 70%, in which case we will have a look to see whether there is an inherent problem that needs looking at.
Q158 Sarah Champion: Ms Sheppard, if you do have a look and see that there is a problem, do you have any powers to remedy that, or ask the local authority to address it?
Caroline Sheppard: The costs provisions are very seldom used. One of the costs provisions applies if the council was wholly unreasonable to have rejected the original representations. There has certainly been one instance-and only one-where we recognised that the same cases were having the representations rejected and then the appeals were pulled out of. We started saying that if this carried on it might be grounds for an award of costs. The council looked at it again, and certainly matters changed.
Q159 Martin Vickers: Turning to the issue of discretion, all systems must have a certain amount of flexibility built into them, and no doubt councils operate within set criteria as to how they use their discretion. Inevitably that is going to lead to certain differences between one local authority and another. My experience as a local politician was that the politicians always want to be more flexible and the officers advise them that they have to be more rigid. How does that work out in practice? Do you find that there are differences between local authorities that give rise to a need some sort of overall guidance?
Caroline Sheppard: The first absolute thing that applies to both of us is that, of course, we never see the appeals or cases from councils where they have exercised discretion, because then nobody appeals. Everything we say is predicated on the basis that we only see the ones where the motorist has perceived that there is an ongoing problem or has a stronger case.
You asked right at the beginning about the Traffic Management Act. There is now a statutory duty to consider representations properly when people first get the parking ticket. There are still examples where perhaps this is being done mechanically and there is not a particularly clear understanding of policy. I understand what you say about policies sometimes being very rigidly applied when they should be more sensitive, and in fact the whole thing could have been resolved at an earlier stage if people had seen it in that light-but that is a small number of cases.
Caroline Hamilton: The fact that the number of compelling reasons that are found by the adjudicators is so low would indicate that discretion is being used wisely; otherwise far more would be returned to enforcement authorities. That is a really good indicator that enforcement authorities are exercising discretion in a sensible way.
Q160 Chair: I want to move on to another issue now. Do you have any suggestions for any changes in how the tribunal system works, or about whether your tribunals should be merged, or whether you should get additional powers? Is there anything that either of you would like to see change?
Caroline Hamilton: I would love to do the telephone hearings that Caroline Sheppard does. It is simply a matter of the bulk of work that we have, and the difficulty that we would have managing such a large number of telephone hearings. I can see that that is something that would be attractive to motorists. Our difficulty is that if the people who at the moment are selecting postal appeals decide that they would like to have telephone appeals, we would be inundated and the cost per case would increase. I can see that it is a very useful tool because outside London is a far larger area. It is far easier for people in London to travel to the hearing centre and have a personal hearing. However, it is something that I would like to explore if money were no object.
Q161 Chair: Ms Sheppard, are there any changes which you would like?
Caroline Sheppard: Yes. First of all, we are increasingly operating in a digital area. Certainly people use smartphones and all sorts of things, even if they regard themselves as offline in terms of filling in forms. The rules need to be much more sensitive to digital communication. Certainly in the adjudication rules we can send things through digital communication. In fact, pretty much all of our authorities now send the evidence to us electronically and we can e-mail both parties; if an appellant puts in an e-mail address, we e-mail them.
However, at the earlier stage councils are required to send everything by first-class post. That is built into the regulations. Not only is that fantastically expensive these days, but what does it say about competition with other delivery services? That is not a matter for us, but it is certainly a matter of Parliament. Finally, if everybody starts off the process by exchange of paper, it is much more of a problem to bring the whole thing more online. I am sure that all the authorities involved in this inquiry would agree that that needs to be looked at so that there is a digital impact assessment on all these regulations. That is very important.
We are in the process of commissioning a portal-based system whereby all the appellants will be able to come in and say what their type of appeal is. We are going to try to lead them through a more modern approach to appealing. They can appeal online already, but it is still filling up a form online. We are going to try to help them, and we hope to pilot that in the autumn with a view to introducing it to all our authorities next year. That is the main thing.
In terms of grounds of appeal, my adjudicators would like it to be a ground of appeal that a council has not followed the guidance. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If somebody says, "I just dropped my pay-and-display ticket"-the "honest mistake" we have heard about today-if councils are not doing what they should do I think the public would like the adjudicator to be able to deal with that. Obviously in London they do follow the guidance, so this would not need to be used in London. But from time to time it would be a useful tool, which we probably would not have to use very much. If it was there, we probably would not need to use it.
Chair: Thank you very much to both of you for coming and answering our questions.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Norman Baker MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Transport, gave evidence.
Q162 Chair: Good afternoon, Minister. Welcome to the Transport Select Committee. Is there anything you would like to say to us before we put some questions to you?
Norman Baker: Not particularly.
Q163 Chair: Do you see any reason for the Government to become any more involved in how local authorities enforce their parking enforcement policies?
Norman Baker: Not particularly, because this is a devolved matter. Every town and city, or indeed village, is different. Local authorities are best placed to decide what their parking policies should be in each area. It would be heavy-handed if the Government were to get involved beyond what we have done, which at the moment is issuing guidance and setting maximum charges for penalties, for example.
Q164 Chair: There seems to be a widespread public view that wardens and others are incentivised to produce penalty charge notices in order to produce revenue for local authorities, and that this is not in the public interest. Is that something that concerns you and on which you think some action is required?
Norman Baker: It would concern me if it were true. In fact, I asked officials about that very matter this morning to check on that point, because it has been raised before. Indeed I have raised it with my own local authority to find out what the procedure is in East Sussex County Council. I am advised that the statutory guidance we issue is such that neither direct employees nor people acting for the council should be incentivised to issue tickets. It would be contrary to the guidance if they did secure more money for their individual company or operator, and if there were incentives to do so. I hope that does not apply anywhere.
Q165 Chair: Is there any evidence that that is happening?
Norman Baker: I have not seen any evidence that it is financially advantageous for any particular employee or any particular company to provide more money and to issue more tickets-no.
Q166 Mr Sanders: You have been on a council and you are a Minister. You could say that you have looked at life from both sides now, as the song goes. When you were a councillor you must have had complaints about car parking charges.
Norman Baker: I can tell you that I still get complaints as an MP, and as a Minister, about car parking charges.
Q167 Mr Sanders: How many of those complaints are from people who genuinely feel that the penalty is too high in comparison to their income?
Norman Baker: I do not think I have had many complaints which are directly related to income, or described in that way. The complaints I have received as a local MP, and indeed in my previous existence as a councillor, have suggested that the level of car parking charge is in itself too high, irrespective of income, and is acting as a disincentive to businesses in the area. That was one complaint. Another complaint might be that the way in which enforcement took place was over-zealous. A third complaint occasionally was that the signage was not clear as to exactly what the rules and regulations were.
Q168 Mr Sanders: Sticking to the enforcement side and the charges, because that is something Government do control, through deciding the maximum bands between which local authorities can choose, those penalties do not relate to people’s ability to pay. Should we have a system where the millionaire can park illegally and it is nothing to him, but when a poor unemployed person who can still afford to run a car goes for a job interview that overruns and gets a parking ticket, there is no discretion to let that guy off, because he has clearly infringed the parking rules?
Norman Baker: You are advancing an interesting social case, which goes way beyond parking into a whole range of offences, both transport-related and otherwise. It is pretty standard now that there are fixed penalty notices for a whole range of offences, whether they are do with parking, traffic offences, littering or anything else. None of those are related to ability to pay.
While I can see the philosophical attraction of what you are suggesting, it would be a complete nightmare administratively to try to deal with that. A fixed penalty notice or a parking charge which is set is, by definition, easy to administer. If that were to be subject to some sort of income means test, that would be horrendously expensive to deal with and to administer. That would not be an attractive proposition.
Of course, for more serious offences-this is beyond my remit as a Transport Minister-a court can take into account ability to pay. By definition those are the offences that attract potentially higher penalties.
Q169 Sarah Champion: Minister, at the beginning you said that local authorities had devolved responsibilities and they all had different issues. What role do you think the Government should play in promoting rational discussions around the issues and costs of providing and managing parking?
Norman Baker: As with most aspects of transport, we have almost a duty, and certainly a power, to set down guidelines. There is statutory guidance in the case of parking. At the moment we have an ability to set the maximum charge for penalties imposed as a consequence of people overstaying what they have paid for in terms of parking, or parking in the wrong place.
We have a general duty, shared with other Departments, to make sure that our towns and cities are vibrant places. In so far as transport and parking relates to that, we have an interest in doing that. Those are our powers. It would be quite onerous, expensive and inefficient if we started being more directive in terms of what we required local councils to do.
Q170 Sarah Champion: It is interesting that you raise the issue of local towns and town centres, because we had a discussion about that. Do you believe that local authorities have the powers and the funds to ensure that local high streets can compete directly with out-of-town shopping centres? Obviously, they have to manage interests, but there are so many pressures on small businesses in towns, and parking is one of them.
Norman Baker: It is, and there is a debate to be had in each area, and each town and city, as to what the best policy is. I do not think it is the same for every area. Personally speaking, I feel that in an area which is, for whatever reason, difficult to access by car but is easier to access by public transport, you can probably have a more robust parking policy than you can if public transport is poor and road access is very good.
These are matters for individual councils. Some councils will want to attract the motor vehicle if they think that is best for the town centre. Others will want to discourage the motor vehicle because they believe it is appropriate to try to get people to arrive by bike or by bus. They may argue that the town centre would be more attractive, and therefore better for business, if that were the case. These are decisions that are best taken locally, rather than by the Government setting down hard and fast rules.
Q171 Chair: Could you clarify the Government’s position in relation to the size of penalties that can be imposed? You have already said that the Government are consulting on the plan to abolish the centrally set minimum penalty charge, under the Red Tape Challenge. What about the maximum charges? Are you considering letting local authorities have penalty charges as low or as high as they want?
Norman Baker: I stand to be corrected by my officials, but I do not think we have consulted yet on removing the minimum charge. There is an argument that the maximum charge has not moved for a number of years and is becoming out of line with London in particular, where it has risen regularly under both the present and the previous Mayor.
It could also be argued that if the cost of legitimate on-street or off-street parking rises to such a degree that the penalty no longer becomes a deterrent, that should be looked at. Equally, you could argue that any increase would send the wrong message at this difficult time in the economy for individual motorists or others.
You might also argue that the impact on a town centre might be detrimental if the excess charges were increased, albeit of course that if people stuck within what they had paid for, they would not incur an excess or a penalty charge. We are looking at that in the round, both the maximum and the minimum, in the Department for Transport and in discussions with other Government Departments. No decision has been reached on that yet.
Q172 Chair: When will they be reached, or when will there be a consultation?
Norman Baker: I would like to say as soon as possible, but it is not entirely in my hands.
Q173 Chair: Can you give us any clues as to which way you are thinking?
Norman Baker: I am taking all the evidence which is before me in both directions and reaching a sensible conclusion. As I say, it is not entirely in my hands.
Q174 Chair: What are your views on the workplace parking levy?
Norman Baker: Again, as with parking policy generally, I think it should be up to individual towns and cities to decide what is best for themselves. We have a position in Nottingham where the workplace levy is being introduced. In a sense, it will be an interesting experiment to see what the consequences of that are.
Of course, it is not always possible to transpose the experience of one town or city to somewhere else because every city and town is different. What might work for one may not work for others. I know that other places, such as Bristol, are interested in taking this forward. I also know that in Nottingham there has been some resistance to that from businesses, who feel that it may be detrimental to them. Again, we are looking at the Nottingham experience very carefully.
The official Department for Transport position at the moment is that it is up to towns and cities to bring forward such schemes if they want to do so-but we would expect business to be at least neutral on any such scheme. If a business community were wholly opposed to such a workplace scheme, the present arrangements introduced by the former Transport Secretary-now the Defence Secretary-means that such a scheme would not go ahead.
Q175 Chair: What is your perception of businesses’ view of the Nottingham scheme?
Norman Baker: There was certainly some resistance to it from one or two major employers in Nottingham. To be honest, the jury is out. We now have the scheme going ahead and the jury is out as to what the consequences will be. Rather than the prejudices-I don’t mean that in an unkind way-or assumptions on both sides as to what the consequences will be, we will have to wait and see what the reality is. I think it will be an interesting experiment.
Q176 Chair: There are problems getting payment of parking penalties from foreign-registered vehicles. What is the Government doing to address that issue?
Norman Baker: It is, of course, open to local councils to employ agents who are able to recover unpaid parking tickets from residents in other countries, particularly European Union countries. It is my understanding that some councils do in fact pursue unpaid tickets through such means, and recover money as a consequence. I am not saying that it is easy and it may not even be very cheap to do that; nevertheless, the opportunity to recover unpaid fees in that way does exist through legislation.
Of course, if a foreign driver in this country continually flouts the law and is still here, councils can in extremis remove the vehicle or clamp it. As you know, we have been quite keen to remove clamping powers from unaccountable bodies, and we have done that. But in extremis public sector bodies do still have that power.
Q177 Chair: So there isn’t anything that you are considering doing as a Government?
Norman Baker: We are very happy to discuss, particularly with our European Union colleagues, whether we might try to smooth the passage of the collection of unpaid tickets across European Union borders. Essentially it is quite difficult, and you will appreciate that there is the law of diminishing returns. If someone has not paid a parking ticket which incurs a relatively small amount of fine, any council will naturally consider whether it is worth employing someone to go through all the rigmarole of trying to find where they are in Genoa, or wherever they happen to have ended up.
Q178 Chair: But are there any ongoing serious discussions about addressing this issue across Europe?
Norman Baker: I am not aware of any serious discussions. The powers are there and, as I say, they are used by some councils. Motorists no doubt work out whether it is likely or not that they will pursued for these matters.
Q179 Mr Sanders: It might not be possible within the EU, but have you considered some form of temporary licence fee when somebody brings their car into the country, which would enable us to record all their details and make enforcement that much easier-given that British motorists in other EU countries incur tolls on roads which they would not incur in the UK? Some non-EU countries do in fact ask for some sort of licence in order for you to drive on their roads.
Norman Baker: There is a difference between asking someone to pay for the use of our roads and asking someone to make a deposit, if that is what you are suggesting, to enter the country on the basis that it is then held and returned to them. Apart from the fact that it would be rather bureaucratic, I suspect it would fall foul of free trade arrangements within the European Union, so I do not think that that would be possible even if we wanted to do it.
Q180 Mr Sanders: Is there any help for enforcement? How do local authorities go about it? Can they access a sort of Interpol register of licence plates across all European countries? I do not think that is possible. If they have issued a ticket to a foreign-registered vehicle, how do they go about enforcing it without incurring disproportionate cost?
Norman Baker: As I say, my understanding is that they can be enforced, and some councils do that. Obviously, foreign drivers are subject to the same rules as UK drivers, although we accept of course that it is difficult for local authorities to use civil enforcement mechanisms against foreign-registered vehicles. We do keep the regulations under review and I am always happy to look at suggestions for improvements. I will ask you, Chair, if I might send you a letter subsequently to confirm exactly what is happening across the European Union. Clearly, that is a matter of interest for your Committee.
To return to the original point which Mr Sanders raised, charging for the use of roads is permissible within EU rules. Indeed, we are open to do that within domestic legislation as well. However, what we are not able to do is to penalise-if I can put it that way-drivers from other European Union countries while not penalising drivers from our own country. The rules that apply have to apply equally across all nationalities.
Q181 Mr Sanders: When are we going to start clamping diplomatic vehicles?
Norman Baker: I think I had better duck that one, and say it is a matter for local authorities whether they want to do that or not. You might want to ask the Mayor of London what his policy is on that matter.
Q182 Martin Vickers: Minister, I want to take you back to the workplace levy. You rightly said that the jury is out, but would you acknowledge that one of the downsides of it could well be a demand not just from retailers-supermarkets and so on-but from other businesses, too, to relocate to out-of-town centres?
Norman Baker: It is certainly a point of view which many people share that that would be the consequence. Others will argue that if you remove a number of vehicles, or discourage them, from the town centre and get more people walking and cycling without vehicles impinging upon them, that will make it a more attractive place to have a business.
I have been to some towns in Germany where vehicles are banned from the town centre, and they are thriving. You can argue it both ways. That is why I think it is important to see what the outcome is. Boots in particular in Nottingham were very unhappy, as you will know, with the workplace levy, and took steps to try to avoid being subject to it. There is no doubt that some businesses in Nottingham were very antagonistic to it and acted accordingly.
As you are interested in the workplace levy, my understanding is that in the first year in Nottingham, the scheme collected £7.8 million in revenue; that is £7 million net after operating costs. That goes towards the costs of the tram extension, the Nottingham station redevelopment and the Link bus services. The cost to employers in 2013-14 has risen from £288 to £334 per eligible parking space. That is the latest information I have about Nottingham, in case it is of use to you.
Q183 Chair: What are your views on how the current tribunals and adjudication service is working?
Norman Baker: They seem to me to be working reasonably well. I did undertake a visit to Poplar, the London one, quite recently to have a look at their operation. I was able to question some of the staff who worked there and saw one or two cases being determined in front of me, to see how they did that and what evidence they took into account. What I saw there gave me some comfort that they were undertaking their task diligently and effectively.
Q184 Chair: Do you think that the Traffic Penalty Tribunal and the Parking and Traffic Appeals Service have sufficient powers? Have you given any thought to merging them? That has been put to us as a possibility.
Norman Baker: I have given no thought to merging them. As far as I am aware, they have sufficient powers. I have certainly had no representations, so far as I am aware, arguing to the contrary. The fact that a large number of appeals are upheld suggests to me that they are operating independently and in the interests of justice and the motorist.
Also included in that document were suggestions to make parking signage less complicated and more easily understandable, to pick up some of the complaints we have had from motorists about some of the signage. We are looking at that now. Subject to the latest research findings, we intend to have new parking signs designed, to be included in the next update of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002. That is the bible for signage, as you will know. That should come into force late next year.
Q185 Chair: Will we hear what you propose to do very soon?
Norman Baker: Yes, of course.
Q186 Chair: We have had a lot of representations about the use or misuse of CCTV in parking infringements, in terms of local authorities not following national guidelines or perhaps CCTV not showing the full picture. For example, a vehicle could be loading or unloading but the CCTV picture does not show that. Do you have any views on how CCTV can be used?
Norman Baker: There is guidance. For example, we don’t expect CCTV to be used in residents parking areas or blue badge parking spots, because clearly it is not possible for CCTV to pick up whether someone has a permit or a blue badge. Therefore it would be unfair to do that. If CCTV is being used in a way which someone thinks is unfair, that can be challenged as part of the appeals process for a ticket being issued. If there is a simple photograph taken by CCTV which may not show that someone was unloading or loading, that would, I suppose, be a ground for an appeal.
I did ask, out of interest as much as anything else, whether information was kept by the adjudication appeals bodies on the reasons why appeals are allowed, so that we could see whether there were particular problems which recurred again and again. They do not separate the appeals allowed by reason, which is unfortunate. I hope we can encourage them to do so in the future, so that we get information back on whether there are particular problems that are recurring.
Q187 Chair: Should regulations be changed in relation to the ability of a penalty charge notice to proceed if a local authority is consistently not following guidelines on the use of CCTV?
Norman Baker: As you say, there is guidance. If local authorities don’t follow the guidance issued, that puts them in a more difficult position to argue their case, either with an appeal body or indeed in a court of law, if someone takes legal action.
Q188 Chair: What would you say to the public who believe that penalty charge notices are simply about generating income?
Norman Baker: I don’t think they are. I hope they are not, and we certainly make it plain to local authorities that they should not be using either parking charges or penalty charges to raise income. That is not the function of them. The function is to control parking in a way that is beneficial to the area served by that parking. As you will know, if a surplus is raised, under section 55 of the relevant Act of Parliament-the 2004 Act-that has to be deployed either for enforcement purposes or for other transport or environmental purposes. What local authorities can do with the money they raise is relatively narrow.
Q189 Chair: Nevertheless, there is a widespread public belief that penalty charges are about raising revenue for the local authority. If that is not the case, should the public be better informed, or should local authorities explain what they are doing more clearly?
Norman Baker: I always think local authorities can do more to explain what they are doing and what their parking policies are. It seems to me that some of the problems which arise are caused by the failure of the local authority to explain properly to its population exactly what it is doing and why.
My personal view-I am not saying that this is a departmental view-is that I don’t think local authorities go around issuing tickets to raise money in the way that some people describe. What I do think happens sometimes is that the enforcement is a little over-zealous or officious, and that sometimes a bit more flexibility and common sense might be applied when it isn’t.
Chair: Thank you very much, Minister.