Just the ticket

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 July, 2005, 12:00am

They hunt in packs, plodding the capital's pavements from Richmond in the southwest to Walthamstow in the northeast, wearing peaked caps and waterproof blue or grey overalls - with luminous strips to keep motorists from mowing them down.

They resemble the new breed of community policemen - short, stocky, uniformed men and women in comfortable Doc Marten shoes who stride the streets trying to calm minor misdemeanours before they turn into riots.

Only the pen and notepad offer a hint as to their social function as parking wardens. They are now so detested a character in London life that, in a poll of the capital's most hated figures, even the aggressive Lycra-clad cyclists, the urban sports utility vehicle driver and the mad motorcycle courier were left trailing in their wake.

They were called traffic wardens and seen as a necessary evil until the police farmed out parking enforcement to the local councils. The councils spotted a good earner and instituted best-business practice to maximise income. The result?

London councils gleaned a whopping GBP500 million ($6.7 billion) last year in fines, half the total figure for all of England. Top of the heap is Westminster - home to most tourist attractions - which gleaned GBP135 million, although perhaps the most shady is Islington, whose fines revenue leaped 82 per cent in a year.

Across London, charges have soared 400 per cent in eight years. It now costs GBP50 for a minor transgression, rising quickly to GBP200 if towed away.

Critics shriek of rampant profiteering as councils further exploit the laws of supply and demand - limiting spaces, setting up neighbourhood parking permits plus more numerous and expensive meters; and extra clamping and tow-away zones.

Just in case they missed a few pennies, they hired more wardens and put them on commission, prompting some hilarious capers including parking tickets on crashed, wrecked or torched cars, and fining motorists the second they park (not waiting the requisite five minutes).

They have ticketed ambulances, dustcarts and police cars - even a military tank, albeit one on a transporter heading for manoeuvres and stuck in a traffic jam.

One Londoner was recently forced to pay a GBP225 fine after an advertising flier obscured his parking permit; another broke the record for unpaid parking fines in a year: GBP13,000.

One more unfortunate downside is the growing assaults on parking wardens. But the more wardens assaulted, the more are hired to roam in packs. Safety in numbers means more tickets.