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Old 15th October 2010, 03:00 AM
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Smile BBC Watchdog: Should you, by and large, pay your parking charge?

The government recently announced plans to ban clamping on private land in England and Wales. But, the RAC Foundation is warning that operators are already finding new ways of staying in business.

One method is by issuing tickets. If you're doing it on private land, you don't need a licence and there's no limit to what you can charge.

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Rebecca Wilcox took a closer look at some of the parking notices which bear more than a passing resemblance to official tickets. She found that it's tricky to detect the difference...

(Do you have something to say about this story? Tell us what you think by emailing us here. Don't forget to include 'Parking tickets' in the subject line. Watchdog will publish a selection of viewers' comments underneath each story, both throughout and after the programme is on air. Please remember to include your name as you would like to see it published).

86-year-old Eileen Blackman's car broke down at a Morrison's supermarket. The car park is monitored by ParkingEye, a private parking company contracted to look after the area. Eileen had parked in the car park for this trip, but as she couldn't move her car she overstayed the time allowed by Parking Eye (which is 2 hours) by three hours. Despite her car subsequently being pictured leaving on the back of a tow truck, Parking Eye sent her a charge for £40.

"I felt bullied and I felt it was not fair, because I hadn't overstayed through my fault," Eileen told us, "the whole letter worried me - the money and the fear of what's going to happen if I don't pay".

Eileen appealed but was rejected on the grounds further evidence was needed. Eileen ended up paying the charge but later, after appealing for second time, Parking Eye realised their mistake, apologised, and refunded her money.

When we looked at the original letter Eileen received, certain features caught our eye - a police style border, the initials 'PCN' and photographic evidence. We asked Tim Cary, a lawyer who specialises in motoring cases to take a look.

"[It] appears to be bordered in what I would describe to be a Battenberg configuration - the kind of configuration you see on the side of police cars. That looks to my way, very official, very impressive."

We didn't only show him Eileen's letter from Parking Eye, we also passed on those that Watchdog viewers have received from other companies, that manage car parks for big names like Co-op, B&Q, McDonald's and PC World, one of which displays an image similar to the scales of justice.

"The scales of justice I always associate with The Old Bailey. Anyone receiving that might think that those scales might suggest some form of official connection," Mr Cary told us.

He also commented on the use of the acronym 'PCN'. When a local authority issues a ticket, it is known as a Penalty Charge Notice (PCN). Local authorities issue these tickets under law and you are required to pay them as such (though you can appeal). Private companies use the same initials - PCN - but they use it to represent a Parking Charge Notice, which is issued under civil law, where there is less regulation.

We took an example of a Penalty Charge Notice, from a council, and a Parking Charge Notice, from a private parking company, out onto the streets. 12 out of the 14 people we surveyed thought the private company's letter looked the most official, particularly because of its Battenberg border, commonly associated with the police.

The letters do seem to look official, so is this why so many drivers who receive them decide to pay up?

British Parking Association response:

The British Parking Association is sensitive to the concerns that have been raised with Watchdog and has led the campaign for better regulation of the parking industry.

Our Code of Practice requires members to comply with a number of conditions including not misrepresenting authority, fair and reasonable pricing and the respectful treatment of all motorists. A breach of the code can mean expulsion from the scheme, no further access to the DVLA's keeper database and therefore no meaningful way of enforcing parking tickets. We are also piloting the first independent appeals service for the private sector which we hope will pave the way for a statutory service for consumers.

The BPA is now lobbying the new Government to act urgently in the best interests of British motorists. In the absence of such action, the BPA's Approved Operator Scheme provides a measure of self regulation which is the next best thing to legislative change.

Athena ANPR response:

The information that we are required to display on our parking charge notices is by its very nature similar to that which public sector bodies are required to display on theirs.

Current regulations require us to display this information in a clear, ordered and logical format.

We communicate very clearly on the notice what has happened, what action will follow and we give the recipient very clear instructions on how to make an appeal.

Our notices state clearly in bold text and highlighted in red that it is a civil parking charge notice.

Our notice states clearly in three locations that we are a Limited company and we display clearly on the bottom our company registration details.

Our correspondence address, clearly states Athena ANPR LTD.

We do not seek to represent ourselves as either a local authority or the police in any way and, we object to this assertion.

Of course there has to be some way of preventing absuive parking. If there was no need for this at all, then there would not be any local authority control of parking areas either.

Commercial companies have as much need to prevent unfair usage of their parking spaces as the public sector does.

In the same way as any homeowner has the the right to make sure that nobody parks on their drive and prevents them using their own space, our clients also have the right to ensure that people who wish us to use their facilities can park there.

Our clients in many instances allow everybody to park for free for a limited fixed period, and this can be a real benefit to the surrounding community.

We operate as reasonably as we can when managing these spaces and we have developed an extremely fair and ethical policy within the car park management industry.

Our staff are tasked to be both helpful and polite when dealing with the public and they do this without fail.

We always give appeals full and fair consideration and we take an extremely ethical view when people are able to provide us with evidence-based reasons for overstaying.

We operate entirely within industry regulations and guidelines in managing our clients properties. No official complaint has ever been upheld against Athena and we are proud of our reputation as a fair and ethical policy business within the car park management industry.

Car Parking Partnership response:

The black and yellow adhesive envelope which the ticket is placed in is not to my knowledge used neither by the Police nor by the majority of local authorities which tend to use a 4 part envelope which includes a reply envelope. The yellow and black envelopes have always been used in the management of off-street car parks and it is only recently that local authorities as part of their cost cutting initiatives have adopted the polybags. Local authority envelopes are clearly labelled "PENALTY CHARGE NOTICE".

The Car Parking Partnership provides parking management services to some 60 Registered Social Landlords, Universities and Hospitals. In all cases as part of the implementation of any scheme we are provided with maps setting out the locations to be enforced including bays, yellow lines, disabled bays and emergency access routes etc. All schemes have permit systems and a necessary part of the scheme is the need to display the permit - this is clearly communicated to all permit holders.

The Car Parking Partnership provides an ethical solution to management of parking on private land. Our system is completely transparent with clear and unambiguous signage. There is a two stage appeal process including the landlord and a complete audit trail from ticket issue to payment or cancellation of a case.

Car Parking Partnership is a member of the DVLA Approved Operator Scheme and the British Parking Association.

A ParkingEye spokesperson said:

"Once again ParkingEye would like to offer its sincere apologies to Mrs Blackman. A breakdown in our normally robust system meant a parking charge was issued incorrectly. However, Mrs Blackman and her daughter followed our appeals process, which is the correct thing to do, and as a result of this ParkingEye wrote to her apologising for the mistake and refunded the money. The handling of the appeal and subsequent apology and refund occurred before Watchdog contacted the company, and was therefore the result of correctly following the appeals process, and not due to the programme's involvement.

"As a private parking operator, ParkingEye is a member of the British Parking Association and the Approved Operator Scheme and is fully compliant with the industry Code of Practice. Our practices and materials have all been properly vetted and approved".

Response from Civil Enforcement Ltd:

Our Parking Charge Notices have been approved by the British Parking Association and Trading Standards. Our Notices are not designed to resemble those issued by Statutory Authorities and our site signage states that the land is private property, together with all of the terms and conditions of parking.

Landlords must have the right to protect their land. It is a fact that our high-tech Number Plate Recognition ticketing approach to managing retail car parks is less confrontational than clamping and towing - and is certainly more beneficial to drivers who do not suffer any delays or inconvenience - nor do they suffer extortionate release fees.

We were the first company in the United Kingdom to offer maximum free stay parking regulations, monitored by Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras. We are Approved Operators of the British Parking Association (BPA) and are subject to regular audit by the DVLA. The BPA's Code of Practice together with rigorous DVLA requirements have removed the cowboy elements and bully boy tactics that used to be associated with the parking industry.

Excel Parking response:

In response to your recent correspondence regarding Parking Charge Notices issued by Excel Parking Services and the implication from yourselves that they are potentially misleading to the public due to their similarity to Council Penalty Charge Notices, Excel Parking Services would like to issue to following response:

Excel Parking Services Ltd have been accredited Members of the British Parking
Association (BPA) since 1994 and were one of the first companies to achieve 'Approved
Operator Scheme' (AOS) status through strict compliance with their Code of Conduct in
2007. The Approved Operator Scheme is designed specifically for BPA Members who
operate parking enforcement services on private land or in unregulated public car parks
and only the most professional and reputable operators satisfy the rigorous compliance

Excel prides itself on attaining AOS status and does not set out to mislead the public on
its operations in any way. The Parking Charge Notices (PCNs) issued clearly state 'Excel
Parking Services' in bold, black capital letters at the beginning of the notice and this is
repeated throughout on no less than 4 occasions highlighting that we are a limited

Excel have issued the same style of PCN for over 16 years, since 1994. We do not
purport to carry out our work under the guise of any statutory powers of either the
Police or any other public body. Our Parking Charge Notices do not include the words
'fine', 'penalty' or make any reference to statute, unlike those Penalty Charge Notices
issued by Local Authorities.

The minor similarities between Notices are as a result of rationalisation within the
industry in codifying breaches of the terms and conditions of parking. These codes are
used so that motorists using private car parks who may breach the terms and
conditions, are not confused by a myriad of different coding structures.
It is hugely unfair and naive to say that it could be construed that the documents
issued by ourselves resemble the public documents issued by local authorities. It could
just as easily be said that the public documents issued by local authorities resemble
ours. Who is right?

The PCN's issued by Excel are designed to be professional, yet also comprehendible
and are not misleading in any way. Excel fully complies with the BPA's Code of Practice
which stipulates what requirements must be included on a Parking Charge Notice and
always endeavour to comply with stringent industry guidelines.

Watchdog viewers' responses:

I got charged £160 & naively paid it for an overnight 'parking ticket' on private land.

Glen from Leeds.

I had one of those tickets from Parking eye for overstaying at a services but they only decided to charge for once despite two occasions. I looked them up online & general advice was to ignore them. I did & they sent me a 2nd increased payment & then one from a so called debt collectors. 18 Months later i've not heard another thing from them.

Alan in Portsmouth

Civil enforcment Ltd tried to charge me £150. I did park over the time limit but due to the fact that there are no signs on the entrance to the car park and from where i parked to the exit there are no signs how do they expect you to understand. If a car park has these regulations it shouyld be clearly stated on the entrance and exits to the car park.

Charlie Moles, Bristol

Should you, by and large, pay your parking charge?
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