Many motorists will be cheering news announced by Home Office Minister, Lynne Featherstone MP, that clamping cars parked on private land is to be banned in England and Wales from next year. The announcement follows years of scandalous behaviour by some clampers who have been charging extortionate amounts of money for clamp release, towing and storage fees.
But how have these rogue operators been able to get away with it? The answer is simple: the government let them. The majority of these clampers, some two thousand by 2010, were actually licensed by the SIA (Security Industry Authority) – an agency of the Home Office itself. The intention was good, and so inevitably took motorists on the road to Hell. The qualifications for getting a wheelclamping licence have been too few, as have the conditions for keeping the licence. For example, no limits were set for clamp release fees and other ‘services’. And the SIA could not visit enough sites frequently to ensure the public was not being exploited.
Worst of all, when things have gone wrong for motorists there has been no appeals service to adjudicate. Motorists have had access to small claims courts and other parts of the legal system. But taking a rogue wheelclamper to court – and then getting him to return your money and pay costs - has been predictably difficult and more than citizens should have to attempt for parking in the wrong place at the wrong time.
With more than twenty nine million vehicles on the roads of England and Wales, every one needing to park at some point in a journey, parking provision is big business. Local authorities cannot meet the whole demand and commercial enterprise is needed to make up the shortfall. Motorists themselves do not always think about parking provision at such regular stops as the supermarket or local sports centre; nevertheless, someone has had to provide the land and maintain it as a safe place to leave a car.
The government is used to regulating the provision of commercial services in other areas of life and should now pay attention to regulating the parking industry properly. Anyone providing parking services should be required to join an accredited trade association and adhere to a code of practice, approved by experts in the industry, motoring organisations and the government itself. Such a code could set out in detail what motorists could expect from parking providers as well as limits to penalty charges. An independent appeals service should also be established: sponsored and funded by the government with support from parking industry itself. The government must also level the playing field for parking enforcement companies and make drivers who do not pay for their parking and persistently evade excess charges responsible for paying up. Ultimately, we need a good regulatory framework for commercial parking services and an appeals mechanism for occasions when things go wrong.