Martin Hannan: Hungry meters that must be fed

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Having had to pay for precisely two parking tickets in my 25 years of driving, I reckon I am something of an expert in avoiding them, usually because I always follow the rules and pay the required extortionate fee.

I have actually had many more than two tickets, but I have successfully challenged every one on which there was even the flimsiest grounds for appeal, and even won a landmark ruling against Edinburgh’s parking regime – though the parking adjudicator dismissed my reasons for the appeal, he himself noticed the dates on the correspondence and scrubbed the ticket because the council’s then parking operators had failed to deal with my case timeously. I gather I was the first to win in such a way.

Last week’s stories in the Evening News – remember, it’s the best place to read local stories – about the sheer number of attendants on the Capital’s streets and the fact that one in six tickets is cancelled on appeal struck a chord with me.

For a fortnight ago, and highly unusually, I got a ticket. It happened in broad daylight, nay, on Market Street on the slope up to The Mound.

It’s at this point I have to decide whether to risk the wrath of the parking service because I have challenged the ticket.

Hopefully I’ll get an unbiased judgement, and anyway, I reckon it’s worth risking £30 to put certain facts in the public domain.

The facts of my case are these: I had pulled into the only available space right beside a parking meter and on exiting my car with a journalist friend, I noticed that the meter was broken. Its green button was missing, and even though I tried putting money in and poking at the metal left under the missing button, I could not get it to work.

I took my money back and as a good citizen who actually believes that parking charges are necessary, I looked around for a nearby meter – that’s what you are supposed to do, find the nearest meter and use it.

We must have spent a couple of minutes looking for one but none was visible, largely because the whole of the pavement up to The Mound was crammed with people – the slow-
moving touristy kind who shuffle up and down the hill daily.

With my mobile phone out of power so that I couldn’t call in the fee, I scribbled a note saying “parking meter broken” and went off for a meeting.

When I returned, a ticket was fixed to my car’s windowscreen and indeed to the two other vehicles on either side of mine, whose owners had also left messages that the meter was broken.

The attendant knew that, of course. They’re not blind, and not stupid.

They are, however, very keen to issue tickets because while they can deny it until they turn blue meanie, the firms who run the service – it’s currently NSL – judge their individual attendants by the number of tickets they issue.

The company doesn’t pay bonuses for making a quota figure of tickets and they do make allowances for where their attendants work, because someone covering Gilmerton, for example, is never going to write as many tickets as an attendant in George Street, the Eldorado of parking ticket land with 21,680 issued there last year.

I have a friend who worked for the former operators who told me that I had been ticketed because attendants have instructions to issue penalty change notices to cars even at broken parking meters.

The reasons why, he told me, were that people usually just paid the fine rather than challenge it, and even if it was challenged, people would eventually not bother going all the way to the adjudicator and just pay up at some stage. And a successful challenge does not come out of the NSL pockets.

Even if beaten on a challenge, it is still counted as an issued ticket and that’s what matters to the pay-
masters of the parking attendants, the city council.

It astonished me to learn that the council currently pays out 
£5.9 million per year for the city’s force of 121 NSL attendants.

That’s a staggering £48,760 per attendant, and you won’t be surprised to learn that individual attendants don’t earn 
anything like that amount.

It adds up to a nice profit for NSL, and at a cost that all council taxpayers must meet because the amount taken in fines does not cover the cost of the attendant service and fell by a £1m last year – well, when half your streets are being dug up, it stands to reason that cars can’t be parked legally or illegally on them and down goes the number of tickets.

Note carefully what I have just written: the amount taken in fines does not meet the cost of the attendants. Of course, the council takes in vastly greater sums than NSL’s £5.9m costs, the money coming from pay-and-
display tickets, meter charges by phone and residents’ permits – in excess of £20m a year as recently as 2009.

But every wrongly issued ticket is a loss to the public purse, and surely someone at the council should be 
asking just why there have been so many.

After my ticket has been 
cancelled by those nice people at NSL, of course.