No Thinking Zone

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For the last two weeks I’ve been working with my father who is redecorating and renovating an empty apartment in London for the owner who intends to rent it out. This has afforded me the opportunity to experience the difficulties faced by tradesmen (and those who employ them) that are the direct result of local government.

All London boroughs have a system of ‘controlled parking zones’ for their respective jurisdictions, which generally operate from around early morning until late at night. Here’s the rationale for this concept, quoted verbatim from the Hackney Council website (the borough we’re working in):

“Controlled parking zones (CPZs) have been introduced to improve parking conditions for local residents and businesses. They also help traffic, pedestrians and cyclists movely [sic] safely in the borough.

In CPZs, parking bays are marked on public roads (excluding red routes, which are the responsibility of Transport for London) to show where it is safe to park. The bays are allocated to certain users, including residents, businesses and their visitors. Each vehicle must display the relevant permit or visitor voucher for the CPZ they parked in.”

If you’re a resident and you have a car, then you have to apply for a resident’s parking permit. If you don’t, then you’ll get fined or your car will be towed away. The cost for a permit ranges from £10 a year, for the ‘greenest’ vehicles, to £265 a year for ‘extremely large’ vehicles.  The cost for the average size car is £112 a year. There are permits for doctors and health and social care workers which are more expensive, as well as permits for ‘all zone’ parking and ‘dedicated bay’ parking.

Yes, it’s as convoluted as it sounds.  But wait, it gets worse.

Residents must apply for ‘visitor vouchers’ so that anyone who visits them can park in the area without being fined or having their car towed. You can get one day vouchers or two-hour vouchers and these cost from £9.25 to £225. These vouchers are basically scratch cards where you scratch off the appropriate date and time and then display it in your car.

The owner of the apartment doesn’t live or work in the area and so hasn’t acquired any visitor vouchers. This has meant that my father has had to spend a significant amount of time every day asking almost everyone who lives on the street if they would sell him some of their visitor vouchers so the plumber he sub-contracted to work on the kitchen wouldn’t get a parking fine. Luckily people have been kind and given him vouchers on some days, but even then these were only valid for two hours. On other days we’ve been less fortunate and on such occasions the subcontractor has found himself in the absurd position of having to drive around until a space became available in the small off-street parking bay down the road. Over the course of a week I estimate that this has cost him and us at least a few hours a day, which means the job will take a day or two longer to complete.

Other tradesmen hired by the owner have faced the same problem when they were carrying out their work at various times over the last two weeks. One of us acted as look-out and would shout a warning every time we spotted a parking warden approaching their vehicle. The net effect to delivery men and visiting tradesmen is that each job takes longer than it would likely have done if they could just park somewhere and stay there, instead of having to dash out and drive around until the parking warden has gone.

The application process for visitor vouchers involves producing documentation and filling in a form, of course. It can be done online, but the process takes a least ten days. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the owner hasn’t done it. She’s having to organise all the work being done on the apartment, liaise with us and liaise with other tradesmen making deliveries of furniture etc, and probably has little time to apply for the vouchers. Also, it’s a cost she doesn’t absolutely have to incur and naturally she’ll not want to add to the overall cost in readying the apartment for rental, which is no doubt large enough.

Controlled Parking Zones is a scheme that generates significant revenue for local councils in London. Fines range from £80 to £130 and a 50% ‘discount rate’ is applied if the fine is paid within two weeks. If you don’t pay your fine, then you’ll end up paying a few hundred quid to get your vehicle back. This arrangement strongly incentivizes people to not dispute their fine and just pay it, even if it was issued unjustly or not by the rules. That CPZs are such a good money spinner is evidenced by the fact that local councils use CCTV and ‘civil enforcement officers’ to bring parking criminals to justice. In my borough we often see a specially designed Smart Car with a camera attached to its roof, which someone is paid to drive around in looking for parking criminals. And no, I’m not kidding.

The whole idea of CPZs is nothing but a costly, convoluted and mistaken attempt to solve a social problem, the significance of which has been greatly exaggerated by local governments and lobby groups. Before Controlled Parking Zones came into practice any business for which it was essential to maintain a space outside for regular deliveries would (if they were smart) put bins, traffic cones or something like that outside near the curb to deter anyone from parking. Very rarely would any space-seeking driver bother to get out and move the obstruction, so this was an effective solution. Of, if they had their own vehicle they would simply park it out front and move it when a delivery arrived. Business owners simply used their brains and solved the problem using peaceful, voluntary means.

Car-owning residents who were at home during the day and who lived near a train station would often find that they were unable to park outside their houses because of the cars of non-resident commuters. However, only a small number of people are car owners who are at home during the day. Approximately 66% of mothers work full-time and only around 30% of all people own cars, which means it’s likely that less than half of the 34% of stay-at-home mothers own cars. Therefore it’s likely that the parking problem only affects around 10% of residents at any given time.

However, the reality of the relative insignificance of the problem is forgotten when someone seeking election to local government or a few residents acting on their compulsion for control over others declares it a moral outrage. They get on their soap box and argue that it’s only right that residents should be able to park outside their own houses whenever they want to and outsiders should be punished for parking in our spaces! We shouldn’t have to pay council tax just so non-residents can use our parking spaces! Naturally, hardly anyone objects or disagrees with such an argument. Always have a parking space available outside my house? Sure, why not. Who do I vote for?

The result is a significant amount of resources and effort being directed towards attempting to solve an insignificant social problem. A problem which anyone who was inconvenienced enough by it to be prompted to find ways to mitigate or solve it was already doing so. From the local government we get a hugely disproportionate, expensive and coercive ‘solution’ to a minor non-violent social problem; one which requires a department of admin staff, foot soldiers to administer fines, the contracting of bailiff agencies, and the use of expensive technology such as specially modified Smart Cars. It’s like hiring a steam-roller to push a nail in.

From individuals we get voluntary, inexpensive (or even cost-free) solutions, such as using objects to keep a space free or making arrangements with a neighbour to park their car outside your house or business. When you need to use the space or a delivery arrives, you call your neighbour, they move their car and you buy them a drink, give them a few quid or pay them back in some other agreed way. Simple, effective solutions that all parties benefit from and which do not require the use of force.

The same cannot be said of the government’s costly and coercive solution of Controlled Parking Zones, which benefits some at the direct expense of others. Residents who fund CPZs through local taxes and do not own a car or need a parking space are worse off, as are all those who fall foul of the parking police. Also, our property-owning customer is worse off because she can’t rent the house as soon as planned and tradesmen like my father (and his subcontractor) are worse off because the longer the job takes the lower their hourly wage. Those who are better off are the parking wardens and admin staff employed by local government because they benefit from the inflated government wages they receive. The small group of car-owning residents who are at home during the day benefit by having a parking space whenever they need it. Let’s hope they enjoy it.

Controlled Parking Zones are a mistaken and unprincipled means to an end. It’s a classic example of how the interests of a small group can be made to supercede those of others and used as a way to get votes by someone longing for election to local government. CPZs do not benefit the economy as a whole, overall wealth is not increased because any economic gain for residents and local businesses is at least negated by the economic loss to others. With more restrictions on individual freedom as a result of the enforcement of Controlled Parking Zones more coercion is introduced into society, and we take yet another step in the wrong direction.

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future when governments have shrunk in size dramatically as a result of doing what they must to stay solvent, government schemes like Controlled Parking Zones will quietly disappear. In the future we can only hope governments will have little or no power over the economic activites of individuals. Until that day comes we have no choice but to find ways to navigate through the web of government controls that result from the compulsion of some to control the many.

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