clamped car

An investigation by the BBC has found that some 350,000 parking fines - costing around £23 million - may have been issued unlawfully in London. It's the latest in a long line of parking fine howlers, in an era when a fine is handed out every 4.6 seconds.

So what has happened, and is this the most shocking parking revelation so far?


The law

The BBC investigation went back to a ruling in 2010, when a driver was told he did not have to pay a fine from Camden Council because it didn't have authorisation for the signs it used.

The signs in question were suspending a parking bay - which it can do for things such as building works or road painting. The Department for Transport designs all sorts of road signs, but doesn't actually have a template for a bay suspension. It's up to the councils to design their own and then get authorisation from the DfT. Many councils at this stage hadn't bothered getting the signs cleared.

The councils

The BBC sent a Freedom of Information request to all the councils in London to ask if they had authorisation for their signs. Some 14 councils applied for authorisation following the judgment in 2010 (although clearly they went for years before the ruling without having it). There are still 16 that don't have authorisation.

They are: Greenwich, Southwark, Westminster, Barnet, Bexley, Bromley, Croydon, Ealing, Enfield, Hillingdon, Kingston-upon-Thames, Merton, Redbridge, Sutton and Waltham Forest.

The BBC traced almost 350,000 tickets issued with unlawful signs - although it says there are likely to be more.

The argument

Some councils argue, however, that the fines remain lawful. The councils draw on a 2011 Court of Appeal case, which ruled that insignificant failures to stick to the rules over signs are not grounds to dismiss a fine - as long as the signs were still clear.

Any case now would hinge on whether the fact that a sign wasn't cleared by the DfT is a 'trivial' failure, or whether it amounts to something more significant. Unfortunately there's no legal precedent to help with this, so someone somewhere is going to have to take a chance - and risk spending a fair bit of cash on abject failure.

And the news gets worse for drivers, because you only have 28 days to appeal a parking fine, so if you have anything older than this you will struggle to have it heard.

More failures

For drivers it'll come as absolutely no surprise to learn that councils have been effectively inventing their own rules, making up their own signs, and charging whatever they like for those who fall foul of them. It's no wonder that parking charges and fines are seen as such a cash cow for cash-strapped councils.

The good news is that we have come to expect no more from our councils. We already have every sign that they are using the parking system to fill their coffers at the expense of drivers and local tradespeople:
  • There are councils who will happily slap a parking ticket on a truck towing a lifeboat - or on a car left by a woman performing first aid by the side of the road.
  • They are cashing in on a smartphone app which is sold to drivers as being the ideal way to find a parking space - but which is used by parking attendants to pinpoint those overstaying their limits so they can nip round to slap them with a ticket.
  • They are charging record sums to park, issuing record numbers of fines, and driving motorists away from the high street in droves.
  • They have such a cavalier attitude that 39% of those who dispute a ticket eventually win.
What we don't know is how much more of this we can take. But what do you think? Are the councils fleecing motorists, or are they simply fining people who choose to break the rules - who ultimately deserve to pay the price? Let us know in the comments.