Along with speed cameras and parking wardens, wheel clampers are the scourge of motorists. They lurk in car parks, waiting to immobilise vehicles which can only be freed with a steep fine. And they get paid for it.
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online Magazine
Trev Whitehouse knows he is public enemy number one. He has been "gunged" by Noel Edmonds, and jokes that his effigy is in Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors.
Stop right there
"I'm not, but if people had a vote on it I bet I'd be in there along with Attila the Hun and Maggie Thatcher."
For he is the founder of National Clamps, a Preston-based firm which has expanded into almost 200 towns and cities since 1989. His client list tops 400, including hospitals, train stations and retail parks.
"They're fed up with people who don't pay and display, who park in disabled spaces or ambulance bays, on yellow lines. We're not the bad guys; the people who park illegally without regard for others are the bad guys."
But even Mr Whitehouse reserves special ire for so-called cowboy clampers, who are responsible for horror stories such as clamped hearses and demands for gold teeth and sexual favours in lieu of exorbitant fees.
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"They bring the profession into disrepute; I've been tarred with the same brush."
He says that his company caps fines at £50 and allows drivers some leeway - the clamp does not go on immediately that an illegally parked car is spotted. Yes, he admits that his employees sit in store car parks to check if motorists are indeed customers, but says this is the only way to avoid clamping legitimate parkers.
Clamping is a boom industry worth more than £200m a year in England and Wales, according to the RAC Foundation. But the practice is banned Scotland, where it is regarded as extortion.
Last year a body to regulate those who clamp on private land was set up. But it will be at least the end of the year before the Security Industry Authority can begin compulsory licensing. And in the meantime, the clampers remain unchecked. There are no maximum fines, no code of conduct, no comeback for disgruntled motorists.
Some take direct action
RAC spokesman Edmund King says those who stand little chance of getting a licence have upped their activities.
"They're cashing in while the going's good, as they know their days are numbered. In many cases they do deals whereby the landowner gets £10 for every car clamped, so it's not in their interests to have decent signs."
Nor is there evidence to suggest that illegal parking has boomed in Scotland since 1991, when clamping was banned.
Now motorists are fighting back, taking action against perceived injustices.
Among them is Scott Demaret, who was clamped at Bristol Airport when he popped in for five minutes to see if his daughter's flight was on time. He objected to paying, as a nearby parking attendant had not warned him that unattended cars would be clamped.
Scott Demaret with his clamped car
"I refused to leave my car, which meant they couldn't tow it away. After about six hours, my father-in-law arrived with some tools. I removed the front wheel and moved the chain to hang the clamp on to the bull bars.
"I drove off, and was eventually stopped by the police. They said they wouldn't arrest me for theft so long as I returned the clamp to the airport."
He did, and was taken to court. But the security firm did not turn up to argue the case, and no further action was taken.
A more concerted campaign is being waged by Angle Grinder Man, who began cutting cars free after being clamped at a hospital last year - after being told where to park by a supervisor.
"He admitted liability but wouldn't take it off unless I paid £95. I took the law into my own hands and hired an angle-grinder and cut it off."
Since then, the odd-jobs man has released almost 60 cars - and says he has received death threats from the criminal fraternity involved in this unregulated industry.
"They're sadistic, vindictive people who make money out of inconveniencing others. And the organisations can be parasites. Builders, delivery drivers and others are forced to break the law as there are too few parks. If we all carried angle grinders, then they'd be forced out of business."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Here in Edinburgh, they're not allowed to clamp, so they tow away instead, costing the motorist much more. You have to pay £105 to get your car released, and a £60 parking ticket.
My scooter was clamped and then towed (within minutes, I suspect), resulting in a £423 release fee. There weren't any signs, and the fee was outrageous, so I took them to the Small Claims Court and won (they didn't turn up). They are now ignoring the court judgement (returned marked "Gone away"), and my requests for payment.
For exceeding the time I paid for by 4 minutes, I got a £50 for ticket, £50 for clamping, and £120 tow-away. Councils have discovered that there's money to be made, and they're just collecting it. They should reserve clamping for extreme cases, and tow-away only when it obstructs the way.
Teresa, Islington, UK
My wife is a wheelchair user, and we changed bank branches to one with a car park that has good access. Often it's full of cars of mums dropping of or picking up children at the adjacent primary school. But the bank is too mealy mouthed to clamp them.
My business had to resort to hiring clampers to keep free the parking bays that we lease and pay a lot of money to have the use of outside my office. Despite this, and the placing of suitable signs, people still believe they can park anywhere they like.
Theres no messing over here in Spain, they just tow your car away and stick a label on the pavement where your pride and joy was parked.
Mark Schubert, Spain
I was clamped at a station car park a few years ago, and in a rage, hired a taxi home, and returned with a hack-saw. Half an hour later I was in proud possession of my car and a ruined clamp, which I took with me. The clamping firm's records weren't all they could have been, as I never heard from them.
How about putting half a penalty point on people's licenses? That'll soon stop people parking incorrectly. Parking rules aren't that hard to follow.
If a car is parked in a private car park, on a red route or on a double yellow, it is causing an obstruction. By clamping the car, the obstruction remains. Better to ban clamping and ensure that illegally parked cars are towed away.
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