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Notes from Big Ben …

Hospitals and Parking – Bloody Democracy

By Peter Guest

Some time ago I told you that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly had separately decided to meddle in parking charges at public hospitals in their empires. These democratically elected bodies have powers devolved from the real parliament at Westminster to run some local affairs.

Both bodies have been taken over by Nationalist parties, which seem to make populist decisions that sometimes are just plain daft and often bankrolled by English tax money. Wales opted to abolish parking charges at hospitals and now has a big hole in its health service budget since (a) parking is not a no-cost operation and (b) parking revenues were recycled to buy more medical services. Scotland decided to cap parking charges at $6 a day and now has gone the Welsh route and announced everything will be free.

Surprise, surprise – the Welsh now have to deal with the “abuse” of their free parking. How are they doing this? By imposing a two-hour limit and fines if a driver overstays. Of course, since medical treatment is unpredictable, the Welsh have had to put in place a backstop for genuine patients whose treatment overruns, thus adding several more layers of bureaucracy and cost.

Here’s a thought: Why not simplify the process? Charge a reasonable amount for the short stay but escalate the charge for all-day parkers.

Many years ago, I implemented charging at one of the first hospitals in Britain to use payment to manage their parking. The hospital sat between a college and a prison, and the prison visitors and the students regularly filled the car park before the clinics started. The few spaces that were left were taken by staff too lazy to walk 50 yards from the staff parking area.

On day one, the media turned out to hear the sick and the lame condemn this “act of Satan” to camera. It didn’t quite work out like that. To a man and woman, the patients and hospital visitors praised the fact that they could finally park at the hospital and make their appointments on time. So far, the madness has not reached England.

Parking and the British

The issue with parking here is complex and quite subtle. Historically, councils were given a duty to provide parking as an amenity, not as a business. Charging was allowed only under sufferance. This creates a dichotomy between people who run parking as a business and charge, and the town hall that tries to provide a service. When charges are introduced, the public cries foul because what was unrealistically free suddenly has a cost. It’s the fact of the cost for what was historically perceived to be a free amenity that’s the problem, not whether it’s fair or reasonable.

Parking Tickets also are a Problem

The police used to enforce street parking in a pretty poor way (two-thirds of all warden time in London used to be diverted to other tasks). Thus, drivers didn’t see much chance of getting a ticket, and even if they did, it had only a six-month life and then it would go away. There was no escalation, so if you ignored the ticket, there was no clamping, no towing and no one got arrested for unpaid tickets. It was a sport: Break the law and the penalties were low and seldom applied. The Romans used decimation where 1 legionnaire in 10 was executed to set an example. Here, 1 driver in 10 was slapped with a feather.

In 1994, that changed. The cities took over and actively looked for lawbreakers, and if they caught you, they meant it. The tickets didn’t disappear, and if you ignored them, they took your car away and sold it to pay the fine. If that wasn’t bad enough, some cities got greedy and gave you a fine even if you hadn’t broken the law, because they could and because most drivers paid the fine anyway. So our opposition to parking charges has three components.

First, we really think it should be free at the point of delivery, which means that most people without a car will pay for parking through taxes. Second, we really think penalties should not be used, just like the good old days when the police enforced but understood that parking illegally wasn’t really wrong. Third, the councils cheat: They issue and collect fines, and some of them issue fines even when there is no offense, just so they can make some extra money.

About that Storm

Last month, I said that there was a storm coming with an increasing number of councils being challenged about the lawfulness of their parking regimes. I am in dispute with my council, which is now responding to freedom-of-information requests with a standard “we have no information on this matter” response.

If you have no information, how the **** can you be making rational decisions? Anyway, I see that the council next door has just admitted that it collected about $6 million illegally in charges and fines in the past four years. It is offering to pay back anyone who can prove that they have paid for parking or got a ticket. Of course, most of the money will be unclaimed, and the people who screwed up will simply carry on.

And Finally– Cameras Don’t Work

A lady drove into her local supermarket where the parking stay is set at one hour max – unless you are disabled (she is), where two hours are allowed. She left after about 90 minutes, and a week later got a ticket demanding $140 for overstaying. She had been timed using a license plate recognition system, which cannot see her disabled badge.

A 70-year-old lady who has never even dropped a toffee wrapper has now been traumatized and criminalized because someone used technology that is not suitable for the job. The enforcement company has apologized and canceled the ticket, but that’s not the point. They did it wrong, and they will do it wrong again tomorrow.

We sometimes are amazed at the size of damages awarded in civil actions in the U.S., but in this case, a $1 million damages award would seem to be quite a good way of getting their attention.

Peter Guest, past President of the British Parking Association, is a parking consultant and PT’s reporter on the scene in Europe and the Middle East. He can be reached at peterguestparking@hotmail.co.uk.

Article Abstract from November, 2008




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