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Don’t park the parking problem, say Citizens Advice and Consumer Focus

9 April 2011

There is an urgent need to tackle rogue parking companies operating on private land, say Citizens Advice and Consumer Focus today. The consumer bodies are concerned that government plans to ban clamping and towing, while essential, will not be enough to curb rogue practices.

Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales saw 16,840 new problems relating to parking in 2010, a 12 per cent increase on 2009 (14,989). Bureaux regularly report cases of unfair and disproportionate charges levied against motorists who have parked on private land, such as shopping centres, hospitals and leisure centres. In many of these cases signage informing drivers of potential charges has been unclear, hidden or missing, and there is no easy way to challenge bad practices or deal with mistakes.

Some drivers even report receiving bogus fines for stays they say they have never made, or in car parks they have never been to. They are often unable to contact operatives to challenge the demands, and those who are reachable rarely produce any evidence for their claims. When fines are not paid, drivers are often subjected to aggressive debt collection tactics.

While welcoming the ban on clamping contained in the recently published Protection of Freedoms Bill, Citizens Advice and Consumer Focus say that further measures are needed to protect consumers effectively from bad practice by private parking companies. MPs are now scrutinising the Government’s Protection of Freedoms Bill. Citizens Advice and Consumer Focus are calling for the Bill to ensure that charges levied for a breach of the parking rules are proportionate, that signage is visible, with a clear fee charging structure, that operators are easy to contact, and an end to aggressive debt collection tactics.

The consumer bodies also recommend independent alternative dispute resolution to be available so that consumers do not have to go to court to deal with errors and cases where businesses have behaved unreasonably.

Citizens Advice Chief Executive, Gillian Guy said:

“Private parking companies should be making parking work well for the landowner and their customers, but all too often they are standing by and watching people make mistakes, or ramping up fees, then making themselves scarce when a driver needs to speak to them or query a notice.

“We are really pleased the government has recognised that this is a serious issue and plans to impose a ban on clamping and towing away. This is a big step forward, but it doesn’t deal with the issues of extortionate charges and the need for a right of appeal, so it’s regrettable that plans for wider regulation of the private parking industry have stalled. The Freedom Bill presents an ideal and timely opportunity to introduce the consumer protection that urgently needs putting in place to tackle the menace of rogue private car park operators and the tactics we are already seeing them use to get around a clamping ban in what is a potentially very lucrative market.”

Mike O’Connor CBE, Chief Executive of Consumer Focus, said:

“Using a private car park should make motorists feel secure and safe but the biggest risk people may face may be the actions of the car park owner rather than damage or theft. Private car park businesses operate in a self-regulated market, with no independent appeals process and this must change. Some operators charge high amounts for minor alleged breaches of parking terms and then pursue the motorists in an aggressive way for payment.

“Our concerns about this industry have been heightened by the Protection of Freedoms Bill which seeks to introduce the concept of owner liability in to an unregulated industry. We are concerned about the apparent ease with which the DVLA releases personal details of car owners to private operators. We welcome the move to ban clamping, there are many practices in this market which needs close attention and we are taking a very close interest in how consumers lose out.”

Cases seen by Citizens Advice Bureaux

A 63 year old man was blocked in by a private car parking operator while attempting a three point turn. The man was forced to pay £528 on his debit card before the operator would let him go. The no parking and clamping signs had fallen down and were lying on the ground partly obscured. Similar cases had been reported at the same spot in the local media.

A man visited his local bureau after he received an unpaid parking charge notice in the post, even though he had never received a parking ticket. When he called the debt collection company to query the notice, they did not have a contact number for the parking company so he went to the car park to get the contact details from the parking sign. The mobile number given was not recognised. The man is confident that he did not park unlawfully and that he would have paid a fine straight away if he had received a parking ticket.

A woman left her car parked on private land while she popped into the Post Office for 3-4 minutes. On returning to her car she saw it had been clamped. The clamper threatened to tow her car away, which would then cost her £400 to recover. After pleading she agreed to pay £240, a demand for which she subsequently received in the post. On returning to the site the following day she saw a notice, which she previously hadn’t spotted, stating the clamp release fee was £140. £100 less than she had been fined.

Top Tips:

If you feel you’ve been made to pay unfair clamping and towing charges Citizens Advice is offering the following tips until the law changes:

  • Take pictures to back up your case, showing where you’ve parked, any distorted or unclear signage, and the fees listed on site, in case these turn out to be lower than the amount you are being asked for.
  • If you are clamped before the ban comes in ask to see formal identification from the clampers and make a note of their SIA licensing number. If they can’t prove they are licensed by the Security Industry Authority (SIA) you should report them to the SIA. (Note: SIA cannot take on your case and have no powers on the fees charged.)
  • If you’ve been clamped don’t try to remove the clamp yourself. Any damage to the clamp could be considered criminal.
  • Unfortunately with clamping and towing it’s likely you’ll have to pay the charge to get your vehicle released, THEN seek a refund.
  • If you pay to get your car released, state you are paying under protest and, if you can, write this on any document retained by the clamper. You must be given a receipt for the payment you make, which should show the information you will need to complain, including the SIA licence number and where you parked in relation to the fine.
  • If you receive a claim for parking charges you dispute seek advice.
  • If you feel you’ve been unfairly charged report the parking company to Consumer Direct (08454 04 05 06 ) so that the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and your local Trading Standards can take action.
  • If the parking firm belongs to the British Parking Association check if they have kept to the BPA's code of practice and, if not tell the BPA: ·http://www.britishparking.co.uk/Feedback-on-a-BPA-member Note: The BPA do not offer a dispute resolution service for individual disputes but they will check on claims that members have broken the rules in their code of practice.
  • For more information on parking, clamping and towing see the Citizens Advice website adviceguide.org.uk or visit your local CAB.

Notes to editors:

  1. The Citizens Advice service comprises a network of local bureaux, all of which are independent charities, the Citizens Advice consumer service and national charity Citizens Advice. Together we help people resolve their money, legal and other problems by providing information and advice and by influencing policymakers. For more see the Citizens Advice website.
  2. The advice provided by the Citizens Advice service is free, independent, confidential, and impartial, and available to everyone regardless of race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, age or nationality.
  3. To find your local bureau in England and Wales, visit citizensadvice.org.uk. You can also get advice online at adviceguide.org.uk
  4. You can get consumer advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06 or 03454 04 05 05 for Welsh language speakers
  5. Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales advised 2.3 million clients on 5.4 million problems from October 2013 to September 2014. For full 2013/2014  service statistics see our quarterly publication Advice trends
  6. Citizens Advice service staff are supported by more than 21,000 trained volunteers, working at over 3,000 service outlets across England and Wales.