By Jonathan Isaby
Crawley MP and former leader of West Sussex County Council, Henry Smith, introduced a ten minute rule Bill yesterday to stop unscrupulous private car park operators from taking liberties against unsuspecting motorists.
"Often, consumers who have used a publicly available private car park receive in the post several days later a threatening demand from the provider for a so-called penalty payment, alleging that the consumer has not purchased the correct ticket. Even when the consumer produces evidence that they bought, for example, a pay and display ticket, the private operator says that it was not displayed properly. That contrasts with the way in which local authorities run their car parks, where, if somebody can show proof of purchase of a ticket, their fine is cancelled.
"The second area of concern is the way in which some unscrupulous operators, who make up the minority of private car park operators, demand payments for the most minor and accidental infractions, such as a wheel that is just touching the dividing white line between spaces. In one case that I came across, somebody received a demand for payment because they got stuck in a queue of traffic as they were trying to leave the car park and were timed out. Again, we may contrast that with how council-run car parks operate. There is an appeals system, and reasonable appeals often succeed. Indeed, appeals succeed in almost two thirds of cases.
The third, and perhaps most disturbing and insidious, aspect of unscrupulous private car park providers is the sheer scale of the "fine" that they seek to levy against the consumer. Often, there is a threatening letter with a demand for £70, which is hiked up to £100 within a fortnight and then further still as time goes by. Again, we may compare that with local authority-controlled car parks, where the fine is typically £50, reduced to £25 if paid within 28 days. We can see that there is quite a difference."
He said that it was not in his instincts "immediately to reach for regulation or for the rulebook" or to propose establishing "some sort of national agency or quango", but outlined his proposal thus:
"What I propose in the Bill is that local authorities with a licensing function should have the ability to license the operation of publicly available private car parks, in the same way that local licensing committees make decisions about the licensing of publicans for the sale of alcohol or cab drivers for the running of taxis. In a similar way, we could have local democratic control with a local focus, to ensure that there is better practice by the minority of unscrupulous car park operators. My proposal would also carry no cost to the council tax payer or the taxpayer in general. Simply, the system would be paid for by a modest application fee paid by private car park operators to the licensing authority when applying for a licence.
"Coming before the House shortly in the freedom Bill will be proposals to restrict the use of wheel-clamping. I very much welcome that, but I fear that one unintended consequence will be that unscrupulous wheel-clampers will simply switch to issuing demands for payments from people, in the same way that some private car parks do. I believe that the Bill could be a useful way of closing that loophole. There is provision in legislation already for local authorities to operate with private car parks. However, that requires the compliance of the private car park operator and the local authority, and of course, an unscrupulous provider is unlikely to agree to work with the local authority."
The Bill was not opposed and is on the order paper for a Second Reading next February.