CPZ's where are they going?

Amidst the news of savage council cuts, it was to be expected that local authorities would try to claw back some of the cash they’re losing. Nevertheless, Lambeth’s steep hikes in its charges for parking permits have sparked outrage.

With reason: January’s 30 per cent hike in the cost of a resident’s permit for an average family car, to £149.50 a year, makes them the most expensive resident permits for comparable cars of any London borough.

That’s more than Westminster, notoriously aggressive on parking (£115 if you pay online) or well-heeled Kensington and Chelsea (up to £110 for cars with medium-level emissions). And the cost of the Lambeth permit has risen almost 150 per cent since 2006.

Other Lambeth parking permits have soared in price too: business permits now cost £600, while doctors’ parking permits almost quadrupled in cost this year, to £400. On-street parking fees have risen to £3/hour.

By contrast, the cost of a Southwark resident’s permit, £99.30, has not yet risen on last year. Since 2007 it has gone up by just 4.5 per cent, well below inflation - though that still makes Southwark’s resident permits for an average car the seventh most expensive in the capital.

The price hikes highlight a wider issue with parking controls: once in place, they tend to expand - and to get more expensive.

Most people would accept that roadside parking space is, in effect, a limited commodity. Demand for it has long outstripped supply. Residents’ permits and other parking charges are a way of rationing that space.

Controlled Parking Zones (CPZs) can make life easier for residents. Before the extension of the Herne Hill zone to my street five years ago, parking was very difficult thanks to commuters – no joke, if you have to unload babies and toddlers several hundred yards away from your home.

On one occasion a family parked outside my house, got their cases out of the boot and headed off to get the train to Luton airport; they returned from holiday two weeks later. That doesn’t happen any more.

Nevertheless, one CPZ tends to lead to another, as commuter parking is pushed into the remaining free parking spaces outside the zone. And thus over the past decade CPZs have become the norm.

Lambeth operates 13, including in Ruskin Park, Poets’ Corner and between Rosendale Road and Croxted Roads. Southwark has 20, with just one in Herne Hill, on either side of Half Moon Lane, stretching from the main junction as far as Burbage and Hollingbourne Roads.

Both Lambeth and Southwark emphasise that they bring in CPZs only after consultation with residents. Nevertheless, the zones have become big business – part of a transformation of councils’ responsibilities and finances over the past decade and a half. Nationally, council revenue from parking is estimated to have soared from more than £600 million in 1997 to £1.6 billion in 2005.

Last year Lambeth parking services made £1.73 million profit on revenue of £18 million, from penalty charge notices (PCNs) and permits and pay-and-display tickets. This financial year it is projected to take £22.4 million, of which roughly two-thirds is from penalty charges and a third from permits and pay-and-display.

Lambeth’s revenue from CPZ permits last year was just under £2.5 million last financial year and is projected at almost £3.2 million this year. It’s a good earner: the borough concedes that the running costs of CPZs, once in place, are low.

Meanwhile Southwark’s parking services made almost £3.4 million profit in 2009/10 on a turnover of just under £11.1 million.

Legally, most councils must spend any profits from parking on other transport-related expenditure – although that definition is quite widely drawn. Last year around £2.6 million of Southwark’s parking profits went towards road maintenance. Lambeth also spent its profits on road safety and concessionary transport fares.

It wasn’t always this way. Until 20 years ago, parking rules were enforced by police traffic wardens: you could get points on your licence as well as a fixed penalty.

Then the Road Traffic Act 1991 decriminalised most parking offences. First in London but later elsewhere, the new law allowed councils to collect PCNs and keep the proceeds.

Later that year, Westminster became the first local authority in the country to outsource parking enforcement. Now most do: Lambeth uses NCP and Southwark employs Apcoa, two of the largest contractors. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Lambeth is more stringent in enforcement than Southwark.

Since the mid-1990s councils have gained further powers to enforce bus lanes and various road rules such as those at box junctions – and to keep the fines collected.

London councils – especially Westminster – have led the way in this trend. Indeed Camden, Westminster and Transport for London are the three authorities in the country issuing the highest number of PCNs: between them, they impose almost a fifth of the PCNs for the whole of England and Wales. In 2008/09, that added up to 5.5 million PCNs in the capital.

Councils’ attitude which often enrages the residents that councils are supposed to serve, perhaps epitomised by the boast of prominent Barnet councillor and Conservative London Assembly member Brian Coleman last month that his council “never knowingly undercharges” on parking.

It seems likely that the CPZs will spread further in Herne Hill before too long. Last year Lambeth drew up plans to extend the Ruskin Park zone to cover the whole of the triangle between Herne Hill and Milkwood Road, although a council spokesman now says that “the plans have been shelved and will not be going ahead.” Southwark extended the Herne Hill CPZ to Holmdene Avenue in January.

Town halls can also push up revenue by extending the hours of parking regulations. Westminster last year mooted extending them until midnight, Monday to Saturday, although nothing has yet come of that suggestion. Last month similar proposals in Croydon to extend restrictions until midnight were defeated following a public outcry.

There is no suggestion yet of anything similar in Lambeth and Southwark. But already there are significant variations in the hours of Lambeth’s CPZs. In parts of Clapham and Brixton, regulations are in force until 8.30pm; in Poet’s Corner, from 8.30am-5.30pm, and at present, in Herne Hill, just12-2pm.

Ultimately parking costs are almost bound to rise during tough financial times. The cuts are real: Southwark is losing £50 million over the next two years and is considering slashing mental health services, after school clubs and park rangers to make ends meet. Car owners will have to take their share of the pain. Still, as permit costs rise and parking regulations spread, you can’t help wondering quite where it’s going to end.

By Andrew Neather

Comment Editor, Evening Standard