Parking fines – the new council tax?

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It’s a subject that’s enough to fray the temper of any driver – high-tech cameras on roads designed to catch you out if you make the smallest mistake. Many motorists have long suspected that councils are trying to issue as many fines as possible. Now a BBC Panorama programme, due to be aired tonight, claims to reveal a ‘target-based, revenue-raising culture’ at a traffic enforcement department.

Cameras mean more motorists are being stung not just for speeding, but for stopping in a yellow box junction, driving in a bus lane, or making a U-turn. Fines can be as much as £1,000, but many motorists say ever-changing road layouts or obscure road signs can unfairly penalise those who make innocent mistakes.

BBC’s Panorama reveals emails between employees at the Hammersmith & Fulham borough, showing staff being congratulated on increasing the number of fines handed out to motorists. Comments in the emails include: ‘Another record month, guys. Well done’ and ‘Well done. Another increase...holidays, as expected, brings back the traffic.’

The emails, which were released under a Freedom of Information request, have prompted campaigners to point out it is a council’s job to reduce the number of traffic violations. Jeanette Miller, a specialist in motoring law, says: ‘It’s clear those emails are indicative of a culture of seeking to issue as many Penalty Charge Notices as they can, and that is completely contradictory to the purpose that local authorities are supposed to serve.’

Hammersmith & Fulham contains one of the country’s most notorious CCTV hotspots, a box junction at Bagleys Lane in Hammersmith that raised £2 million last year and catches up to 40,000 drivers a year. Panorama erected clearer signs around this junction to assess the impact on drivers. It claims its test recorded a 25% reduction in the number of vehicles stopping in the box junction, despite an increased amount of traffic.

Traffic enforcement cameras record your number plate and can now detect various traffic violations, including speeding, vehicles going through a red light, unauthorised use of a bus lane and vehicles travelling inside a congestion charge area. A cynic might say that, with such deep funding cuts to local councils, motorists are easy revenue targets. Speeding comes with a maximum £1,000 fine or £2,500 for motorway offences. You may also be charged £130 for stopping in a yellow box, using a bus lane or stopping on a red route, for example.

The government gave motorists a glimmer of hope last week when the Home Office issued new instructions to local authorities to use traffic cameras ‘sparingly’ to avoid any accusation of ‘overzealous’ enforcement. Cllr Nicholas Botterill at Hammersmith and Fulham said: ‘Before we started enforcing, some drivers knew they could get away with blocking junctions or driving in bus lanes. They now know they will get a penalty charge and that has had a major benefit in keeping the traffic flowing more smoothly.

‘We understand that circumstances can sometimes make it difficult to stick to the rules and we use discretion to avoid penalising people unfairly where they have made a minor mistake or where roadworks or congestion interrupt normal traffic flow. We also make allowances for funerals, people unloading wheelchairs, security deliveries and a whole range of other special circumstances. ‘Of course penalty charges generate income, as any financial penalties do, but no-one working in our CCTV room is given a bonus based on how many tickets they issue. The claim that we issue tickets just to make money is totally untrue.’

Panorama: Traffic Fines – Highway Robbery? will be shown on Wednesday June 12, 7.30pm on BBC One.

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