Neil O’Brien is Minister for Levelling Up, the Union and the Constitution, and is MP for Harborough.
The first thing you know you get an official-looking letter in the post. It says you owe a lot of money for a parking fine, though you never got a ticket. It threatens your that if you don’t pay up right now, you are going to get tangled up in a whole bunch of escalating legal trouble.
Ultimately it implies that the boys are going to come round if you don’t cough up.
You want to protest. Perhaps they just made an error and got your registration number wrong. Or you had paid and they made a mistake. Or the machine was out of order so you couldn’t pay.
Maybe there was no obvious sign that you couldn’t park there, or that you’d be charged for doing so.
Although you want to complain, even finding out how you can do that turns out to be a total maze, and you can only appeal to one of a number of bodies run by the parking industry themselves.
At that point a lot of people will give up and cough up, to avoid the hassle, even though they know they’ve been unfairly treated. Sadly, it’s a story that is familiar to millions of people.
Now, most people who run parking firms do the right thing, but there are too many cowboys and rogue operators out there – firms that make money not from the fair business of collecting normal parking charges, but from handing out tickets and then gouging people for additional costs.
And that’s not just unfair, but bad for our economy.
Helping our local high streets and town centres roar back into life after COVID means encouraging more people to shop local and support local businesses.
Yet, poll after poll – both before and during the pandemic – shows that a lack of cheap, easy parking is one of the greatest barriers to people visiting their local high street. Fear of being stung for parking ticket further puts people off driving into town.
And that fear is not entirely unfounded. Private firms issue roughly 22,000 parking tickets every day, often adopting a labyrinthine system of misleading and confusing signage, opaque appeals services, aggressive debt collection, and unreasonable fees designed to extort money from motorists.
Apart from their inherent unfairness, these practices damage our high-streets, our towns and our city centres.
So we’re determined to bring them to an end. That is why we threw our full support behind the Parking (Code of Practice) Act 2019 introduced by Sir Greg Knight, and backed by many Conservative MPs.
It set out a clear vision for the regulatory system with the interests of safe motorists at its heart.
The publication of the Private Parking Code of Practice today is a big step towards translating that bold vision into reality. It provides for clear and fair rules, and fair treatment.
First for clear signage, and clear surface markings, so that people don’t get stung because they didn’t even know the rules. It’s not good enough to have some tiny little rusty sign tucked away somewhere no one can see.
Second, for compulsory grace periods so that people parking to pick up a pint of milk from the corner shop can no longer be hit with a whacking great fine just for running a couple of minutes late.
Third, lower fines, down by about 50 per cent, and aligned with the system already used by local authorities. Fourth, an end to firms heaping unfair additional “collection charges” on top of the fines.
Fifth, the code also bans the use of aggressive and pseudo-legal language that we’ve all seen on those yellow parking slips doctored to look like official Penalty Charge Notices.
Loads of MPs have come to me with examples of constituents who feel bullied, intimidated and unfairly treated by cowboys. So finally, this new Code also allows drivers to challenge unfair fines through a new independent appeals service.
There will be no wriggle-room for rogue companies who continue to flout the rules. If they fail to follow this Code, they will effectively be banned from issuing parking charges indefinitely.
I’m confident that these measures will make it much simpler for people to park near their local shops and services without being unfairly fined. In doing so, it will deliver a shot in the arm for our high street businesses throughout our town and city centres, helping them to bounce back from the COVID pandemic stronger than ever before.
But it also restores basic fairness and common sense, and will reduce worry, hassle and unfair costs for millions of people.