THIS IS the story of Lester Cowling’s 15-month battle with Dorset County Council over a parking ticket.
It’s a story that raises some worrying questions about how the county council treats people – and facts.
Why was Mr Cowling not explicitly warned that he needed to buy a ticket?
Why did the council say that new parking restrictions in Dorchester had been advertised – when the Dorset Echo and Wessex FM say they hadn’t?
Why did the council say that the National Trust owned a building in High West Street, Dorchester – when the National Trust insists it does not?
None of the answers to these questions is clear.
But Dorset County Council staff have been sent for “retraining”.
Lester’s battle with Dorset County Council
Most people – when they’re given a parking ticket – seethe but then accept the fact and pay up.
But Mr Cowling describes himself as a bit of an old Bolshie. A Portlander by origin, he trained as a journalist on the famous old Daily Mirror scheme in Plymouth (Alastair Campbell went on this). He had a long career in the media; jobs included running commercial radio stations, being Features Editor on the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, and serving for a while as The Sun’s TV critic. These days he lives in West Bexington and works as the head of publicity for an environmental organisation.
In short, he’s no fool.
And he has not appreciated being treated like a booby.
Everybody has always acknowledged that he never intended to commit a parking offence.
Strictly speaking, he did – and Dorset County Council has been determined to make him pay.
Mr Cowling says that the council has spent tens of hours and possibly thousands of pounds in its efforts to make him pay.
The result was – after a tribunal held in Bournemouth – that he parted with £25.
Parking is one of the great local journalistic subjects (dog muck is another). The assemblage of pieces here is an attempt to cover it in a newish way. So first the facts, drawing on an account prepared by Mr Cowling himself.
How Lester Cowling got his Dorchester parking ticket
Mr Cowling’s ticket was issued one Sunday afternoon in November 2009. It was one of many given to motorists after the unpublicised introduction of on-street pay and display parking in Dorchester in 2009.
The scheme operates in some Dorchester streets but not in others, where kerbside parking remains free.
There was a postal strike on. Mr Cowling drove specially to Dorchester to deliver a cheque.
He’d not intended to park in High West Street, but saw a free space and pulled in. For decades these spaces had been free. He didn’t check the kerbside signs because it would have meant stepping into the busy road.
A Traffic Warden (posh title Parking Enforcement Officer) was near where he parked. Mr Cowling had a brief conversation with him before heading off to post his letter.
He didn’t realise that he’d failed to notice a parking machine, tucked away next to railings, which he’d already passed when he pulled in.
The Traffic Warden didn’t let on. When Mr Cowling returned less than five minutes later the Traffic Warden was taping a ticket to his windscreen.
So began, says Mr Cowling, “a long battle which would see piles of correspondence accumulate and which would reveal a side to the County Council very different from the friendly, caring and frugal organisation it likes to portray itself as.
“Some of the false statements made may astound you.
“Watch the video and see what happened.”