Article entitled Victory in Driving Section of Sunday Times
A landmark case against a local council that illegally hiked its parking charges to support other services could result in drivers across the country seeking refunds
Hundreds of thousands of drivers may be able to claim refunds on parking charges after a Sunday Times investigation found that at least a dozen local councils could be setting fees illegally.
The findings follow a High Court judgment last week that ruled one north London council had wrongly hiked the cost of resident parking permits from £40 to £100 to raise revenue and offset council tax funds rather than to relieve or prevent congestion, as the law stipulates.
Barnet council was told to reimburse some of the fees and lower the cost of parking permits across the borough — a move that could cost it up to £2m, depending on whether it appeals against the decision or not.
However, because the High Court ruling on the legislation applies to all councils for all types of parking, its effects could reverberate across Britain. It is being hailed by motoring groups as a defining moment in the battle between local authorities and drivers after two years during which council parking profits have soared by 27%.
“Resident parking permits have been a form of poll tax on wheels for too long,” says Edmund King of the AA. “One has to ask why revenues are increasing so much. Parking income is almost like a drug that some councils have become dependent on.”
According to the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, councils are allowed to set fees for permits and other car parking charges only “for the purpose of relieving or preventing congestion of traffic”. It does not allow a public body to use parking charges as a revenue-raising measure.
The Sunday Times has established that several councils appear to breach these regulations. The evidence is buried in internal reports and minutes of meetings, which reveal that parking fees are often used to raise money.
A medium-term service and resource plan from Bath and North East Somerset council, for example, mentions increasing parking charges “in order to provide additional funding to invest in environmental and highway initiatives and support the local economy”. It increased the price of parking permits and adjusted parking tariffs to raise £250,000 this year.
Calderdale council in West Yorkshire last year commissioned a “parking income generation” study after the local authority identified parking motorists “as an area where additional revenue could be raised”.
An internal report last month for Leeds city council justified increasing the cost of parking to raise an extra £400,000 a year because the council “faces significant budget pressure for the current and future years”.
Earlier this year a councillor in Exeter, Devon, said parking charges were used to “help us keep our council tax low”. Ashfield district council in Nottinghamshire said last year that “the contribution from car parking charges helps to protect funding for other frontline services like waste, environment and community protection”. It followed a rise in the hourly cost of parking from 20p to 40p.
Other authorities have been more open. Last year Cornwall council issued a press release stating that it was increasing parking charges “to accommodate a 3% increase in total income to support transport services, including highway maintenance”.
Graeme Hicks, the councillor then responsible for parking, said: “We must not lose sight that parking provides an important income stream that helps to support services provided by the council.”
In April Jonathan Owen, the deputy leader of East Riding of Yorkshire council, told a local paper that it was putting up charges because “the income has to cover not only the costs for free car parking . . . but also contributes in part to the highways budget for road maintenance and traffic management”.
Council lawyers are busy studying the ruling. “Until we have properly analysed the [High Court] judgment we will not be in a position to make any further comment,” says Exeter city council. East Riding of Yorkshire council says: “The council needs to consider the court judgment in detail.” Bath and North East Somerset council claims that its charges do no more than pay for the costs of running car parking schemes. Cornwall council refused to comment.
The case against Barnet was an object lesson in local people taking on a council against the odds. It was launched by David Attfield, a 46-year-old solicitor, after the cost of a residents’ permit allowing him to park outside his house was increased two years ago from £40 to £100.
The council has been ordered to pay him £120 — the difference between the figures for two years.
“It was outrageous,” says Attfield. “It had an impact on the ability of people to enjoy their homes. What made it worse was that Barnet had increased the cost of visitors’ permits from £1 to £4 at the same time. This meant that you didn’t want to hold a barbecue or a party because it would cost £16 if four people drove.
“The council was unfairly loading a disproportionate amount of its costs on a small proportion of the borough. At some points it was more expensive to park outside my house than it was to park outside Harrods.”
Soon after he began his legal battle The Sunday Times reported on Millie Parker, another Barnet resident, who was about to host a party for her daughter Scarlett’s third birthday. The eight visitors’ parking permits she would need cost £32 — more than she spent on jelly, ice cream and treats.
Barnet had claimed that it was merely increasing its prices in line with other neighbouring authorities but details obtained by Attfield proved that it was relying on the money to plug holes in its budget — and the roads.
“The only way we are going to be able to spend any money on highways or pavement repairs (and the next section of potholes are just beginning to appear) is to use any surplus from the parking fund,” wrote Brian Coleman, the councillor responsible for parking, in an email to fellow Conservative representatives.
A report to the council’s cabinet said: “Fees and charges are an important element of council income as they contribute approximately £80m per year to the cost of delivering services, which is not then required to be met from council tax.”
Attfield’s legal team says it was clear the council was in breach of the law and after last week’s victory his lawyers expect the consequences to be felt at other councils too.
“This is a very significant judgment,” says Andrew Brookes, a partner at the legal firm Anthony Gold, who has already been contacted by campaigners hoping to take legal action against their local authorities. “It is highly likely that other councils have misinterpreted the law as far as car parking charges are concerned and are using them as a form of taxation by stealth. I expect many motorists will have a strong case against some councils. Some councils out there will be very concerned.”
One motorist is already following Attfield and has been granted permission for a judicial review of parking charges in Camden, north London. Richard Chaumeton, 50, who runs a building company, launched his campaign over the £258 annual cost of a residents’ permit.
Brookes says that he can advise on whether residents have a case against their local authority, but warns that one limiting factor is that they will typically have only three months from the announcement of new charges to bring a judicial review.
There is a further option, though. The local government ombudsman service says that it will also consider the issue and can order councils to refund parking charges that were increased in breach of the law.
It is an avenue that should take less time than Attfield’s two-year legal battle, although no decision will be taken until any appeal by Barnet has been heard.
“The case has been a great burden in terms of time and mental energy,” says Attfield. “I was up against a huge local authority but the council was picking the pockets of residents and it was legally and morally wrong.”