HOW DO you hold to account a local authority behaving badly?
For the past 15 months my friend Lester Cowling has been desperate to highlight the bizarre machinations of parking enforcement in Dorchester.
He increasingly felt the system was weighted against him and others who had been caught out when pay-and-display was introduced without any publicity in Dorchester. He had lost faith in the impartiality of Traffic Penalty Tribunal, the body funded by councils that handles appeals. He realised the way the wind was blowing – and it wasn’t in his favour.
There were serious issue to be raised, but what newspaper would have bothered with the protests of somebody who has lost an appeal?
So how about a video to highlight Dorset County Council’s bullying behaviour and lack of truthfulness?
I had worked as a professional TV camera man and I was up for it.
The days when parking offences were handled by the local magistrate court, where everybody could monitor what was going on, are long gone. Police and magistrates were glad to be rid of the hassle of enforcing regulations.
These days if you want a your appeal to heard by an adjudicator from the Traffic Penalty Tribunal in person you have to travel some distance. So Lester’s appeal hearing was held not in a court building but in a smart Bournemouth hotel, the Highcliff.
There was a certain irony in that. Many people believe that former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who wanted motorist to abandon their cars in favour of public transport, set the aggressive tone for today’s parking enforcement. Mr Prescott, a vigorous campaigner for lower CO2 emissions, was staying at the Highcliff for a Labour Party conference when he was asked on TV why he’d needed a chauffeur-driven high-emission Jaguar to take him and his wife the few hundred yards to the Bournemouth International Centre. In an embarrassing response he blamed his wife – she’d not wanted her hair blown about.
I attended Lester’s appeal hearing. The council sent three people. Lester told me that he’d been assured no new evidence could be introduced at this stage. So I was surprised when it was. Lester had previously endeavoured to discover why parking signs couldn’t be attached to the walls of buildings in High West Street and had to be on posts at the edge the pavement where they were difficult (impossible?) for motorists to read. Now, suddenly, the council came up with a reason. The building was Grade II listed and owned by the National Trust. The adjudicator carefully noted this.
The adjudicator, and everybody else, accepted that Lester had never intended to commit an offence. Technically he had done so. The council insisted on some sort of financial penalty. They settled for £25 – half the normal fine. It would have looked bad if, after all their effort, they’d gone away with nothing. I wouldn’t quite allege the council team were smirking when they left the room, but there was a look of self-satisfaction. This changed when I introduced myself and said I was an independent film-maker producing a video about the case.
They declined to be interviewed and said I needed to contact the County Council press office. The press office in turn declined to put anybody forward for interview and issued a statement – which can be found by clicking on this link.
Has our strategy of making a video to highlight unfairness worked? Already the County Council has conceded it got some things wrong.
It talks about “retraining” staff – good.
It also states that traffic wardens must never act as “agent provocateurs” – i.e. encourage motorists to commit offences so they can then issue them with parking tickets.