Artillery Row

GOTCHA! Kerching! Kerching!

How Covid-19 has revealed the obstinate mentality of certain bureaucratic minds

Aside from lower pollution, less traffic, and more time to read and reflect, it’s hard to imagine anything good might come from the COVID crisis. But let me suggest one thing that has: COVID has highlighted the worst of the “Gotcha” mentality that infects a certain kind of bureaucratic mind.

Whilst most police officers have exercised discretion wisely over what counts as “essential travel” during lockdown, there have also been some jaw dropping instances of robotic rule enforcement.

“The law is the law” intoned the Sergeant “and it doesn’t change because of what’s happening.”

Like the Metropolitan Police Sergeant who gave a ticket to Gemma at her bakery in the London borough of Barnet for drawing temporary lines on the pavement outside two meters apart. “It’s to keep my customers safe” she explained gulping down her bewilderment as the officer drew out his pocketbook and noted down her name, date of birth and address. “Criminal damage” had been inflicted on the pavement which was public property, he explained.

No matter that Gemma was trying to save lives and jobs and her chalk paint could have been scrubbed off in a jiffy.  AN-OFFENCE-HAD-BEEN-COMMITTED. “The law is the law” intoned the Sergeant “and it doesn’t change because of what’s happening.”

Why not?  Because “otherwise there would be anarchy in the world.” What’s more, if she didn’t remove the chalk paint soon, Gemma would get another ticket, and then another until she did.

One of Gemma’s colleagues asked the Sergeant plaintively: “You want to call anyone above you before you do that?”

“I don’t need to,” he replied with a look that said “My Word Is Law!”  It would have been a good idea if he had. The Met later said the Sergeant’s “actions do not reflect the current policing style that the MPS seeks to adopt.”

Apologies for such zealotry have also come from several other constabularies: Thames Valley, Northumbria, South Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire, Derbyshire.

I’m hoping I too might get an apology –  not from the Police, but from the Sheffield based “Barnet Parking Services” who enforce parking on behalf of Barnet Council after my own truly spectacular “Gotcha” moment when, like Gemma, I was trying to do my bit during the crisis.

I was delivering a weekly shop to a vulnerable self-isolating elderly lady and her two daughters who live at the bottom of a long lane whose entrance is overgrown and was also obscured by wall to wall parking.

The entrance has no street number and in order to find it,  I had no choice but to park my car on the opposite side of the street outside a school on a stretch of the road marked  “restricted.”  However, the school was closed for Easter holidays, there was not a soul about, my car was stationery for only a minute or two, and anyway was parked well away from the school entrance just in case a vehicle needed to get in.

Ten days later, came the “Gotcha” letter. A camera had captured my car on the restricted yellow lines.  Naturally, I appealed setting out the unique circumstances together with the telephone number of the family whose groceries I had delivered in case Barnet Parking Services wanted to check the facts.

This was their response: “Whilst we certainly appreciate that you were doing something charitable in light of recent circumstances – vehicles must not stop on the School Keep Clear Markings for any reason.”

Not for any reason? None at all?  Even though the school was closed?  Even though I had no choice? Even though I was only there for a couple of minutes maximum “doing something charitable”?

No, adjudged Robin Moorwood, Barnet’s Parking Compliance Manager from his desk up there in Sheffield. “Whilst the Council certainly sympathises with your circumstances and are aware that we are living in what could be described as ‘uncertain times’ (No s*** Robin!) this does not provide an exemption to the restriction.”

I’d like to think it does Robin. And I hope that the Independent Environment and Traffic Adjudicator to whom I shall now appeal in person will think so too. The Adjudicator has the power to award costs if the local authority is considered to have acted unreasonably.

Not that Mr Moorwood will likely care too much should he lose. The system is biased against taking parking tickets to this second formal stage of appeal, so not many people use it.  If you lose, the fine doubles which is why most citizens who’ve suffered a “Gotcha” injustice don’t want to take the risk.  It’s also yet more hassle.

According to the RAC, last year councils made almost half a billion pounds from on-street parking fines. Some of that will accrue from “Gotcha” moments – a wheel just an inch over the yellow line, honest drivers caught out by confused signage, and the thousands of flint-faced appeal refusals at first instance with the local authority.

For a few hours on a handful of Saturdays each year, my road becomes a Controlled Parking Zone (CPZ) when Saracens play at home to provide extra parking space for their fans’ cars even though not that many fans  – if any – do actually park there. But that doesn’t stop Barnet wardens from slapping tickets on the cars of any Residents or their visitors who have forgotten to park their cars in their driveway unless they have a voucher – even if their cars are not taking up any space (in what after all is their road) needed by Saracens fans.

Last October I got a ticket for, in effect, not having checked out that Saracens was playing a fixture while I was 5,500 miles away in Los Angeles.

Two days earlier I’d had to go to LA on urgent business at a few hours’ notice and – silly me! – not being a Saracens fan, the club’s next fixture wasn’t at the forefront of my mind as I hurriedly packed my case and made my way to the airport. Nor had I noticed the date of the fixture on the CPZ sign at the entrance to my road as my taxi sped past it. (I was probably double checking to see I’d got my passport). So I never thought to put my car in the drive. Did any of this cut any ice with Mr Moorwood? No it did not. “Please be advised that the onus is on the driver to familiarise themselves on the days on which events are taking place” he wrote.  And if you don’t’? “Gotcha!  Kerching! Kerching!”

If local authorities can’t inject some reasonable discretion and humanity into their lucrative parking fines business, then Parliament will have to. It’s becoming a legalised racket – oppressive and extortionate.  The half billion pounds local authorities rake in every year from fines is supposed to go on highways maintenance and fixing potholes. Yet only half of it does, says the Institute for Fiscal Studies. No wonder Barnet is now riven with deep potholes, its streets wreathed in weeds, and leaves from two winters are caked into street gullies because Barnet hasn’t bothered to clear them. And no wonder the parking fines have become known as a “Wallet on Wheels” for councils with a mentality so uncompromising that it literally sucks the humanity out of life.

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