/ Travel & Leisure

The parking postcode lottery – should councils tow the line?

Tow sign

Parking is a postcode lottery for drivers, with some local authorities being far more strict in dealing with minor offences than others. Has your council ever issued you with a parking fine or towed away your car?

Living in south east London, I’ve had my fair share of parking tickets in the past few years. I didn’t think they were all deserved, and I successfully appealed two of them.

One was when the wind had blown my parking ticket onto the floor of my car, and the other was when I’d not been able to find a pay machine or any information about hours of operation anywhere near the parking space.

The others I felt were issued for valid reasons – for things like unintentionally parking on a yellow line or staying too long in a legitimate space. So I didn’t grumble too much and handed over the £50 fine.

But if that penalty had included another £200 for the car being towed away, I’d have reacted very differently. Yet, this is what happens to thousands of motorists each year – cars are being towed for minor parking infringements.

Councils tow cars for minor offences

We asked 32 councils under the Freedom of Information Act about the number of vehicles they removed and the level of offences that had led to these removals in 2011/12.

We found a big difference. For example, Westminster council hasn’t clamped or towed a single vehicle since 2008, and yet neighbouring Kensington and Chelsea has towed 6,299 vehicles in 2011/2012 alone.

Government rules say that councils can resort to towing cars if they’re causing an obstruction, if it helps keep traffic flowing, or if they’ve been observed parking illegally for at least 30 minutes. Yet we found some councils towing cars in response to more minor offences, like outstaying their time in a parking space or parking outside the white lines of a legitimate bay.

In Brent and Croydon almost one in four vehicles were removed for minor offences like this, followed closely by Camden council.

Surely the penalty should fit the crime and only cars that block the highway or cause a hazard should be towed? Some councils have generated a massive £1m from towing away cars, so they need to justify that the penalties they’re giving out are a fair reflection of the offences being committed.


With justifiable restrictions correctly displayed and good quality enforcement there should rarely be a need to tow vehicles away. It doesn’t seem to be necessary to any great extent on London’s Red Routes which are patrolled responsibly, enforced equitably, and universally respected. The behaviour of certain local authorities and their contractors truly is a money-making racket and usually disproportionate to the parking violation [which is possibly an infringement of our common law]. There is a case for two-away powers to be available to deal with persistent offenders or people who persistently evade their penalty charges because their personal or vehicle details are not correctly registered.

Claire, I’m glad you won your appeal against the penalty for the parking ticket that had blown off the dashboard – this happens so often when the door is closed and councils are making a fortune out of it. If they don’t issue sticky-backed tickets you can apply to the inside of the windscreen they are partly responsible. For the second successful appeal, do decent parking enforcement officer should have issued a penalty notice; they should have logged the lack of signs and permit machines and reported the deficiency for rectification. As a matter of interest, did the issuing councils accept your challenges or did you have to go all the way through to the formal appeal tribunal in each case?

Just spotted two silly typing mishaps :

First para final sentence “two-away” should read “tow-away”.
Second para third sentence substitute “no decent” for “do decent”.

Figgerty says:
22 October 2013

To prevent my parking ticket blowing away I use a cut down version of a tax disc holder on the drivers side low down on the windscreen. The ticket slots in easily in the holder and I can close the door without the draught blowing the ticket onto the floor.

Ross Langlands says:
24 October 2013

I’m not sure where your Scotland figures come from. I was charged £180 for collecting my car after it had been towed away in Edinburgh. I’m not sure whether this was the towing fee and the PCN together. I was late for a meeting at the West End of Edinburgh and parked in a mews. There were no signs on the walls or road markings In the mews. I parked at 9.15, a PCN was issued at 9.25 and the car was towed away at 10.00. There was one other resident parked in residents’ parking and I caused no obstruction. When I returned at 10.30 my car had gone. I found that at the entrance to the mews on the wall of a house there was a bronze plaque 15×7 cm inscribed with “No Parking. No. 1570”. This was 60 m from the square in which I had parked. I appealed without success!

Vernon Brotherson says:
25 October 2013

The ‘Pay and Dismay’ article seems unduly sympathetic to persons who park illegally. Those who do so knowingly should accept that there may be consequences, including the possibility of inconvenience and concomitant costs of having their vehicle removed to a car pound. Sadly, it appears that some people regularly park on yellow lines, having calculated that the occasional penalty charge works out cheaper in the long run than paying daily charges in a local car park! Parking restrictions are not there to frustrate motorists. They are often there for road safety reasons or to ensure access for emergency vehicles. Delivery vans and dustbin lorries may also have access restricted by illegally parked vehicles, and even overstaying time at a parking metre could be denying another motorist access to a legal parking space. Councils should be encouraged to remove more illegally parked vehicles. If it concentrates the minds of those who behave irresponsibly then that is a good thing, and if councils make a healthy profit out of it then that is good too as it should mean a lower council tax for the law abiding majority.

It should be the case that the nett revenue [any overall surplus after enforcement and administration costs] from parking fines and permit parking schemes makes a major contribution to the council tax account and therefore benefits council-taxpayers. Strictly speaking, councils are not supposed to be making profits from parking violations and control zones – they were expected to break even taking one year with another so although they should not run at a loss they should not be continuosly accumulating surplus funds. Any surplus funds that due accrue are then intended to be ring-fenced for the improvement of off-street parking, highway safety, public transport, cycling and such like. Under this system, the funding for a whole lot of highway-related spending [including maintenance] has moved from the general account to the parking revenue account which means that the council tax could be lowered. But is it? Alternatively, better and more extensive public services could be provided. But are they? In practice, schemes funded from the parking account have become gold-plated and extravagant in an attempt to use the money and justify the parking enforcement; parking enforcement operations have become administratively expensive and over-zealous, and the managements have become bloated [if the private sector is involved some of this is not readily apparent in physical form because the fat has been converted into executive bonuses and shareholders’ profits]. In consequence of all this
we have permit schemes with excessively high charges and restrictive rules to draw in more money from visitors, tradesmen, and second-car owners; waiting restrictions with complicated variations to catch people out, and squads of roving enforcers – backed-up by tow-trucks – determined to protect their jobs. I have always believed that society works best when money is left in the pockets of the people and not washed through the mires of municipal bureaucracy with no doubt well-intentioned but doomed attempts at benevolent redistribution for “benefits” we were not seeking and payrolls for superfluous officials.

I don’t understand why so many people ignore parking restrictions and park where they could cause inconvenience or danger for others. I would follow the rules even if there was no penalty. The only time I have had a parking ticket was just after the unmetered time on the outskirts of a city had been decreased from three hours to two hours and I forgot about the recent change.

Maybe there is a reason to review parking restrictions from time to time but, as Vernon has pointed out, allowance must be made to ensure that emergency vehicles etc. have adequate access.

Simon Sever says:
25 October 2013

Parking in railway stations now begins to equate to the cost of a rail ticket. Ascot parking £7.00, return ticket with railcard to Waterloo £9.40. Ridiculous charges lead to people parking where they shouldn’t.

Here’s my tip; never throw your parking ticket(s) away, in fact store them on your bulkhead somewhere and in some order. Main reason is that you could be ‘sommoned’ for having no ticket – you need proff for a certain length of time to be safe eg. you have a ticket stuck on your car and some nincampoop tears it off and throws it in the hedge – thus you know nothing about it until a letter arrives in the post and if you suffer from OCD you’ll have thrown it away and your proof. The other reason is “I hate Officialdom being car Park Attendants” who think they are GOD (sorry) and have the right to do anything and anything that can frustate them is a good cause – like lots of tickets spread across the bulkhead by the windscreen – it just slows them down from their nastiness.
There is no law against keeping your tickets in that zone and you have the right to retain your proof. Please do it from now on. PLEASE.

Malcolm B says:
25 October 2013

My wife recently parked with a legal stick on ticket in the main car park in Buxton, Derbyshire. She returned twenty minutes before the ticket ran out, to discover a summons on her windscreen. The glue had failed and the ticket was in full view on the floor. I called the relevant call centre in a neighbouring county and asked for advice. It was suggested that I send a letter of explanation together with a copy of the ticket, but not to send the original as it would get lost in the offices! I placed a scan of the ticket in the letter and it was clear that the summons was issued thirty minutes before the ticket ran out. My appeal was rejected and my wife had to pay £25. What a bunch of clowns and I wonder whether they had to fulfil a quota for the High Peak Council.

Tom Houghton says:
26 October 2013

It’s important to remember that since parking enforcement is privatised, these services, however tightly managed, are run for a profit. More tickets=more profit.

It’s time we got back to enforcing road safety for the benefit of road users not shareholders.

Once councils or their contractors have made the considerable investment in a tow-away vehicle and its specialised crews, leased a car pound, and set up the extensive back-office systems to support tow-away activity with its 24hr reclaim procedures and payment facilities, it is obvious that the operation is not going to be allowed to remain idle for much of the time. To earn its keep each tow-truck probably has to lift several cars a day off the streets and – as drivers become more canny and avoid the more obvious parking contraventions – the enforcement operatives will be on the look-out for more and more borderline infractions and give unsustainable reasons for removing a vehicle.

I can appreciate Edward’s advice to retain your pay-&-display tickets for use as evidence in the event that a PCN is issued but removed from the vehicle. However, I would not recommend leaving them all over the dashboard; people I know have demonstrated that it does not pay to antagonise enforcement operatives. Life shouldn’t be like that . . . but it is.

Old Harveian says:
30 November 2013

It’s very simple – don’t break the rules and you won’t get fined! If you don’t like the rules lobby to get them changed. Also the fashion for devolving powers to local councils allows them to enforce the rules how they like (so long as it’s within the rules), so Central Government cannot then tell them how to do it!