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Parking mad

Updated Friday, 4th August 2006

The moans of the motoring lobby may be irritating but, even in the domain of so-called public policing, economic imperatives, dressed as performance targets, can affect decision-making and mean that laws are not applied appropriately and consistently.

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Ben Fitzpatrick
Ben Fitzpatrick.

Pity the poor driver? Not especially. The relentless bleating and special pleading of "the motoring lobby" can be a baleful and wearisome sound. If it's not fuel duty then it's speed bumps or other traffic control measures in residential areas, or speed cameras and their oppressive habit of photographing cars which are... er... speeding.

The lobby speaks with a libertarian voice in which regulation is victimisation, which gives the impression that rule keeping is for other people. It also masks the reality that driving in contravention of certain rules can actually constitute criminal behaviour, and is therefore a matter of public concern.

It is hard to pin down a definition of what "a crime" is. What we can say is that a crime is a behaviour in which society, through its lawmakers, has chosen to take an interest, and which it has chosen to prohibit or regulate. That goes for bad driving as well as burglary.

However, drivers are citizens too, and if one is going to complain about their predilection for casting themselves in the role of victims of an overbearing state, then one needs to be as sure as one can be that the laws in question are being applied appropriately. This is a question of the rule of law - the idea that laws apply equally to everybody, whether they be ordinary citizens, members of government, or whoever.

Moaning drivers may well be irritating, but denying them their due legal protections is ultimately bad for us all. It might, after all, be us on the end of a perceived unjust law one day (and given that under the current government, more than 600 new criminal offences have been created, it's likely that there are a few such laws out there).

The main purposes of law enforcement are numerous, but ultimately, enforcement, in theory, enhances the public good by preventing, deterring and detecting offending behaviour. It does this while respecting the rights of individuals - suspects, victims and witnesses - affected by enforcement processes. Moreover, appropriate enforcement enables citizens to feel that the authorities are acting in their interests.

Enforcement, when done properly, enhances the legitimacy of those doing the enforcing. Thus, enforcement activity which is based on any kind of quantitative target is problematic, because priorities can become skewed. The target becomes the priority, rather than the deeper purposes which the target is supposed to serve. The problem becomes exacerbated when the target is set by a body distant from the streets.

In recent years, the police have been subject to a bewildering array of targets from central government. These are linked to future funding (and of course, to the career development of individuals) and inevitably lead to a shifting around of finite resources at local level.

If central government wants you, the local senior officer, to increase detection of vehicle crime, then perhaps you'll start increasing police presence at the local car parks and high density residential areas, where the opportunities for such offending are higher. You'll then have less resource to police retail crime - which might have been a bigger deal in your own area than vehicle crime.

"the police are not servants of government"

You may meet your targets, but at the cost of antagonising the local retail sector on the way, and thereby creating a legitimacy problem for yourself. The central target has distorted your local priorities. There is also a deeper problem here to do with the erosion of the constitutional independence of the police – the police are not servants of government, they are servants of the law.

So even in the domain of so-called public policing, economic imperatives, dressed as performance targets, can affect decision-making. When we’re looking at the allegedly overzealous enforcement of parking regulations, we have a further issue to contend with. The enforcement function has been “contracted out” by a public body, the local authority, to a private agent, whose priority is enhancement of shareholder value, and who is not hindered by the more noble constitutional traditions of public policing.

The enforcement agent wants to retain the contract with the local authority; the local authority, driven by the politics of the time to act more and more as if it too was a private body, seeks to maximise revenue, and an unholy alliance is formed, from which the interests of citizens are excluded, and in which legitimacy is the scarcest commodity.

Despite the fact that parking violations may not be crimes in the strict sense, being ticketed is not simply a private matter between us and the agent; it affects our liabilities as citizens – if we don’t pay, we can end up in court. As citizens, we have a proper expectation that when rules are enforced against us, they will be enforced fairly and for appropriate reasons.

Law enforcement is inevitably a matter of some discretion: it is sometimes more proper and more effective in the long run to deal with minor infractions of rules in an informal manner, particularly when the person who has broken the rule is either deserving of sympathy or is capable of learning from the experience. However, if you’re a parking attendant and your bonus is at stake, these informal avenues are closed off, you’re less inclined just to have a word, and you are impelled towards issuing that ticket.

So if you’ve parked where you shouldn’t have, don’t complain about the simple fact of being ticketed, but do ask why you’ve been ticketed, because that matters. The prevalence of ticketing in a given area should be linked to the prevalence of problem parking, not to the contents of the contract between the local authority and the enforcement agent. The core purposes of law enforcement were touched on above, and raising revenue was not one of them, although prolific ticketing probably causes less of a political headache than putting up council tax.

Further reading

  • Outsourcing – few companies haven’t considering outsourcing in recent years, what does it mean, and what makes so compelling?
  • Police – comprehensive government guide to all law enforcement matters
  • National Policing Plan published by the Home Office
  • Constitutional and Administrative Law by Hilaire Barnett
  • Plural Policing: The Mixed Economy of Visible Patrols in England & Wales by Adam Crawford, Stuart Lister, Sarah Blackburn and Jonathan Burnett
  • Handbook of Policing by Tim Newburn

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