Page last updated at 06:01 GMT, Monday, 1 February 2010

London councils' three-decade parking error revealed

By Ed Davey
BBC News, London

Parking campaigner Neil Heron said the councils had made money unfairly

Five London councils may have to repay millions of pounds of parking fines to motorists after a BBC London investigation proved hundreds of their parking bays have been unlawfully operated for decades.

There are 346 diplomatic parking sites in the city, reserved for foreign embassy staff.

But because they are not "standard" bays, councils have to get permission from the secretary of state for transport before installing road signs.

Now Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Camden, and Islington have all admitted they did not have proper permission from the government.

It means their signs did not comply with the law - and were technically classed as "illegal obstructions of the highway", according to the Town and Country Planning Act.

Every parking fine and car-towing carried out in these unauthorised bays since the 1970s is therefore unenforceable.

'Acting unlawfully'

Richard Bentley, of RMB Consulting, is an independent traffic signs consultant who has appeared in court as an expert witness.

He said: "Failing to have signing approved by the government means nobody can be penalised.

"These councils have been acting unlawfully."

In Westminster alone, 1,463 tickets were issued in diplomatic bays last year.

By law, everyone given a ticket in an unauthorised diplomatic bay within the past six years is now able to reclaim the money.

Map of London's diplomatic parking bays
The City of London has now removed its two diplomatic parking bays

Based on the number of tickets given out by Westminster, that could be in the region of £5m London-wide, parking campaigner Neil Herron said.

But a separate legal test case currently going through the courts could force councils to voluntarily return all "unlawfully derived income" from illegal bays.

Retired roofer Barry Moss has lodged papers with the High Court in a case concerning Bolton Council which could prove the legal principle that councils have to proactively repay such income no matter how long ago it was obtained.

If he wins it could compel the London councils to pay back to motorists every unlawful penny gained from diplomatic bays since the 1970s - and Mr Herron warned that could be tens of millions of pounds.

Such money could be hard to find. Westminster is already seeking to plug a £22m overspend and was caught two weeks ago ordering officers to use parking to make more revenue.

Mr Herron, of the Motorists' Legal Challenge group, said of the diplomatic bays issue: "It is the probably the biggest parking admission ever across the country and will have huge implications."

Fairness and justice is a two-way street and councils now have a duty to refund those fined unlawfully
Neil Herron, parking campaigner

Describing revenue from diplomatic bays as "22 years of unlawfully derived income", he continued: "If councils paid more attention to getting everything right they would not now be in the position of having to refund millions.

"This is what happens when corners are cut in the pursuit of a cash cow.

"Fairness and justice is a two-way street and councils now have a duty to refund those fined unlawfully."

Camden and Westminster both realised their mistake in late 2009 and applied for authorisation to make their diplomatic bays legal.

Islington and Kensington and Chelsea still do not have authorisation.

After being alerted to the error by the BBC, both are applying for authorisation.

Westminster did apply for permission at a "handful" of sites in 1978, according to a Department for Transport (DfT) source.

But the council said it had since lost the document detailing which locations were authorised, meaning no fines from their bays were lawful until late last year.

Westminster has 196 diplomatic parking sites.

'An oversight'

Kevin Goad, Westminster's parking boss, said: "The council has been given approval for the signs used to mark diplomatic bays.

"If any of our bays were not approved by the Department for Transport in the intervening period this was an oversight that has been corrected."

A spokeswoman for Kensington and Chelsea said: "We believed approval for this sign had been granted by the Department for Transport in the 1970s.

"Now it has come to our attention there is no record of this and we have contacted the DfT to apply."

Appeals invited

Camden Council admitted it had no authorisation before November 2009.

A spokeswoman said: "We maintain that at all times signage has been clear.

"Anyone who has received a ticket they believe has been issued incorrectly can appeal."

An Islington Council spokeswoman added: "We were unaware of an issue regarding special authorisation for signage in these bays and will look into this further."

City of London's two unauthorised bays were removed two years ago.

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