Belfast Telegraph

Anger over private car park owners who threaten drivers

BY NOEL MCADAM

The Assembly has united to declare war on some private car park owners accused of threatening motorists.

And MLAs also voiced outrage that, unlike England, Scotland and Wales, there is no appeal mechanism for drivers in Northern Ireland.

Parties joined forces to lambast the practices of some companies, to demand a more robust 'code of conduct' and to urge the minister responsible, Mark H Durkan, to meet his UK counterpart, Transport Minister Stephen Hammond – a meeting that is planned.

The DUP, Sinn Fein, UUP and the SDLP also questioned the legality of some of the actions of the firms, who were confronted by previous Environment Minister Alex Attwood who said their strategy appeared to be "charge big, move quickly and threaten hard".

Paul Frew of the DUP, which proposed the motion, said: "Many shoppers and constituents simply pay the fine and do not try to fight it or appeal. They simply pay it because they are scared not to. That builds up resentment and could hurt retailers."

He said people were "bombarded" with threatening letters warning companies could get details of the drivers from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.

They could be blacklisted and threatened with credit problems and legal action.

"Again, you spend six months writing to those car parking companies, and then, at the end of it, they simply waive the payment and stop, not because you have done something right or been smart about it, but because they have just given up trying to get the money," Mr Frew added.

Sinn Fein's Cathal Boylan said the current system was open to abuse by private firms.

"We need to ensure proper access to an accountable and transparent appeals process."

Pat Ramsey of the SDLP said intimidatory methods were being used by companies and said "a line had to be drawn".

Ulster Unionist Tom Elliott argued: "Consumers need the protection in law just the same as business owners require it."

Mr Durkan said: "The rights of the car park owners and shoppers need to be respected. I do not dispute that and am all for action to ensure it. However, that action has got be reasonable.

"Putting up small warning signs that motorists may not see is not in my opinion fair. An objective to squeeze every last penny out of motorists is not fair. Motorists not being given the opportunity to appeal, is not fair.

"So I want to see much better regulation of those handing out fines. The British Parking Association have a Code of Practice. It includes visible, uniformed staff, clear, visible signs on entrance to the car park, and non-threatening penalty notices for enforcement. I am concerned that these guidelines are not being adhered to."

CASE STUDIES

* A father of four faced six months of intimidating letters and a £150 fine from a private car park firm for being 13 minutes late, the Assembly heard yesterday

* Another driver who left a private car park to pick up tickets for a show was also fined £100

* In Newry a man who spent 15 minutes in a clothes shop was told he would need a receipt to avoid another hefty fine.

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