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Not fine. Not fine at all.

No-one likes paying parking fines. But if you park on a double-yellow line, or you leave your car for longer than you’ve paid for on the meter, and you get caught, that’s what happens. Double yellows, zigzags outside schools and hospitals, parking meters etc are where they are for a reason: to maintain safety standards, to keep traffic flowing, or – yes – to swell municipal coffers. And while we might grouse at the time, deep down we know that the system is more or less fair. But that isn’t always the case.

Every month or so, I try to head for my hometown, Norwich, for a couple of days midweek. To see my children; to catch up with my brother and sister, and my friends; and generally to make a nuisance of myself.

Hanging out with the kids generally takes the form of meeting for dinner. Both are unavailable during the day: my daughter works full time; my son is at college all day three days a week, and has recently secured a part-time job which takes care of the other two (plus Saturday mornings). Oddly, though both are now earning, it still seems to fall to me to foot the bill for our evenings out, but I’m not complaining. So it goes.

A recent trip home followed what is now an established pattern. I picked up the children, we argued for a while over what to eat and where – they always seem keen to stretch my budget, bless ‘em – we drove into town, I parked up in a central, council-run, car park, paid the fee and off we went.

We had a lovely time, as we always do; but the eatery we ended up in was a fair old walk from where I’d left the car. However, noticing that there was another car park nearby, and being a kindly sort of person, I offered to bring the car to them. Offer accepted. I walked back, drove round, parked up, the kids finished their drinks, the three of us left, and I dropped them off at their front door.

A few days later I received a Parking Charge Notice telling me that I owed £100 (reduced to £60 if paid within 14 days) to a private parking company (which shall be nameless) apparently in charge of the management of car park no. 2. It all looked terribly official, with lots of legal-sounding small print, and I was on the point of phoning their automated payment line. But something stopped me. Reader, I Googled them.

Actually, I could have Googled, Asked Jeeves, Bing-ed or used any other search engine. The result would have been the same.

The private car parking industry is comprised of chancers. No more, no less.

The company that targeted me, and the myriad others in the same game, are not scammers – they’re too clever for that. But while they operate within the law – just – their methods are questionable in the extreme. The tactics used – a mix of legalese, butch-sounding (threatening) phrases like “enforcement action”, official-looking “parking tickets” (see above – and spot the difference) and more – are surely meant to bamboozle their victims into paying up, fearful of the full weight of the law coming down on them should they fail to comply.

Which they shouldn’t be. Fearful, I mean. The only “crime” they’ve committed is to unknowingly enter into a (surely specious, probably spurious) “contract” with the car park operator: a contract for leaving their car for perhaps a few minutes. An unreasonable contract.

I know, I know. A lot of quotation marks. And there may be more.

There’s more. Should one choose to challenge the charge, one appeals to the operator in the first instance. Should that fail, one can then appeal to one of two adjudicators, depending on which trade association the operator is affiliated to: the quasi-independent POPLA (Parking On Private Land Appeals), or the IAS (Independent Appeal Service). Appeals to the former typically enjoy a 50% success rate; appeals to the latter, much less.

Because guess what? The IAS isn’t independent at all, but instead has a vested interest – a financial interest – in parking companies winning their appeals.

Unsurprisingly, this has led private parking operators to switch trade associations in their droves: from the British Parking Association (regulatory body: POPLA) to the International Parking Community (regulatory body: IAS) – a phenomenon known as “forum shopping”.

A dodgy industry. But we can surely agree, there are too many cars: our roads are overcrowded. Our car parks too. Which might, just about, make the existence of these rapacious outfits borderline justifiable if their dubious antics benefitted anyone but themselves.

Though really, who else wins? Obviously not the hapless, unsuspecting motorist, hit with an outlandish bill. But I would argue that the car park owner doesn’t come out of this unscathed, either. It must surely be bad PR for any good, customer-focused business (which, at the end of the day, should be any business; but clearly isn’t) to be associated, even at arm’s length, with these unscrupulous, parasitic bottom-feeders.

Surprisingly perhaps, I have some sympathy with business owners who want to ensure that the people making use of their parking facilities are their own customers. But farming out the running of your car park to a bunch of goons whose sole motivation is to line their own pockets by preying on the gullibility and fear of their unsuspecting victims is surely not the way to do it.

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