UK Councils are suffering under the recession much as everyone else and they try, on the whole, to get the best 'bang per buck' from their income. A lot of this is driven by central government because they set levels of national funding for local councils for essential services (police, fire etc.) and others are bid for by demonstrating a need and the rest by Council Tax (or Poll Tax as we used to call it).
The point in this article is to describe how Councils make up money from certain areas and act for themselves rather than the people they are supposed to support and represent. So to cut to the quick, I'll use Westminster City Council in central London, the richest borough in the UK.
Westminster City Council (WCC) is home to the mother of all parliaments (perhaps a mother that's been on the gin a bit too much and forgotten where she's left the kids), Buckingham Palace and is the most tenacious council for bringing in cash for parking and parking offences. It's big money and last year there was a 'surplus' of 35 Million GBP. That's rather odd you see because it's actually illegal to make a profit from parking so they call it a surplus and spend it the next year. This money is ringfenced and can only be spent on transport projects and a lot of the money goes on worthwhile projects like Freedom Passes (free travel for elderly), which is positive.
However, of the 35 Million they clawed in last year 12 Million GBP of that went to NSL Ltd, the company that has run WCC's parking for the last seven years. That's big money for any company and well worth protecting and nurturing and NSL have done a lot of nurturing. Claims from many corners have echoed at how WCC have set targets for NSL Ltd to guarantee income, WCC and NSL Ltd have denied that but conversations with NSL Parking Operatives (called CEO's) by reporters on TV and in the media have countered that. One whistleblower from NSL ended up being sacked for being open and speaking about his experiences to the media. The procteting and nurturing of this contract still goes on and is up for tender again now, time will tell if NSL Ltd have nurtured WCC enough!
WCC have consistently raised the charges for parking in their boundaries. We had a raise of charges last year, then some zones had their costs raised and recently we've had 'harmonisation' raises where charges have been raised UP to that of the most expensive neighboring council and notice not LOWERED to that of the cheapest neighbour. Why is harmonising always upwards?
The bang up to date increase (yes there's more) has been mooted by WCC which is to charge for parking right up until midnight. That will hit restaurants, pubs and theatres in Westminster and representatives of these businesses have started to turn on the council because in times of recession these are the most easily hit luxuries. If people have to pay extra to drive in and park then the fear is they won't bother. And no matter how much people in authority say how safe, clean and lovely London's transport system is, experience will dictate otherwise.
WCC's case is that they need to manage congestion. At least for mooting this idea it is, WCC seem to change the reasons for charges as it suits. at the end of the day though, the result of all this charging for evenings is an additional estimated income of 7 Million GBP per year, no small potatoes. This was further brought to light by a BBC investigation where it uncovered WCC assessments based on the income the scheme would bring a private internal document based on money not congestion.
In 2008 WCC brought in a trial to charge motorcycles to park, the motorcyclists got nothing for their £1.50 per day, they got the same bays, the same squashed space and no security. They did get extra bays but, funnily enough, that was after witholding any new bays for four years, some would say that's creating a demand, others would say maybe not. The upshot is over 2 Million GBP income from people using motorcycles.
WCC's aggressive position on parking has brought out many attackers ranging from motorcyclists (www.nottobikeparkingfees.com) to Richard Pulford of the Society of West End Theatre (comments here) and is seen as unfair and blatant revenue raising from parking, which is illegal. A website set up by person unknown has consistently shown unfairness and blatant abuse by WCC to those parking in its Borough, Nutsville (www.nutsville.com) has given plain evidence of how WCC and NSL behave.
It's not just Westminster, though they have played a part in influencing other Boroughs. Westminster run something called Partnerships in Parking which was initially kicked of by Capital Alliance. Westminster now chair the unelected group and are trying to sell its Verrus based pay by phone system to other councils. However this has attracted the attention of the EU because of the possible flouting of procurement rules.
Just to finish, it's not just parking. In the UK some minor traffic offences have been deregulated and local councils have been able to enforce these by either CCTV, CCTV cars or parking wardens. These cameras are often placed out of site from the road user, aren't signed correctly and can be illegal. Nutsville gives an excellent example of the illegal use of a CCTV car here that shows a CCTV car enforcing an illegal sign. Camden have been doing it for years with hidden cameras and no signage despite the Infomation Comissioners Office stating that where CCTV is used for traffic offences it must be appropriately signed and that the ethos is to warn drivers that CCTV is in operation.
Councils like Westminster and Camden ignore this advice and because there is no legal requirement they can coin in every time a road user is caught on camera committing a minor offence. Some have claimed that the reason London't streets have become more controlled with one way streets, restricted turns, bus lanes and road restrictions because they are an opportunity to rake in cash. Sounds like claims of entrapment. The sad fact is that the British public are set int he frame of mind that if they get a ticket they have to pay it and because the inference on the ticket is that if you challenge you could end up paying double, people don't challenge it and just pay up.
Traffic does have to be controlled but perhaps it should be taken back to a legal control rather than a cash generating council enforcement regime. That way the temptation for councils to use it as a cash cow won't be there and maybe legal action will provide a better open deterrent.