Northern Ireland traffic wardens accused of £13m parking fine 'blitz' on motorists
'Ticket-happy' Red Coats have been accused of executing a blitz on Northern Ireland's high streets after parking fines rose by 11% in just one year - potentially worth up to £13m in revenue.
The shocking hike comes as struggling city centre retailers report falling footfall amid widespread concerns that punitive penalties are driving shoppers to out-of-town superstores.
Traders have also said that the over-zealous enforcement approach of traffic attendants is a serious problem that could ultimately lead to the death of the high street.
New figures reveal that almost 85,000 Penalty Charge Notices (PCNs) were dished out on Northern Ireland's streets in 2016 - up 8,722 from 2015 - and just over two fifths (41%) of them were in the greater Belfast area.
It also emerged that over 36,000 fines were issued to drivers in car parks (3,628 more than the previous year), with most offences (13%) detected in the Fermanagh and Omagh Council area.
In bus lanes and bus-only streets, a hefty 27,911 PCNs were issued for moving traffic offences in Greater Belfast, with most contraventions recorded on Donegall Square East (26%), Great Victoria Street (18%), and Castle Street (16%).
Retail NI boss Glyn Roberts lambasted the "staggering" 11% increase in on and off-street parking as both "a scary statistic" and a "massive concern" for hard-pressed traders.
"For some time our organisation has expressed the view that over-zealous enforcement of car parking is becoming a serious problem for our town and city centres," he said.
"The huge volume of fines is in danger of putting off shoppers from going into our town and city centres for a fear of a ticket.
"The only winners from this are the big out-of-town superstores with their unfair competitive advantage of free car parking and no traffic attendants."
Belfast is the location where traffic wardens are most prolific in Northern Ireland, with 34,690 fines having been dished out on the capital city's streets during 2016.
Large numbers of drivers also fell foul to tickets in Newry (where 6,379 were caught out), Londonderry (5,477), Ballymena (3,838) and Lisburn (3,624).
The next 10 most ticketed towns were Armagh (2,747), Enniskillen (2,581), Portadown (2,438), Bangor (2,249), Newtownards (1,561), Coleraine (1,402), Newcastle (1,363), Omagh (1,313), Lurgan (1,164) and Magherafelt (1,102).
The figures were published by the Department for Infrastructure (DFI) in its Penalty Charge Notice Statistics 2015 and 2016 report. It is the Department's TransportNI wing which takes responsibility for the enforcement of most parking restrictions, with on-the-ground enforcement provided by TransportNI's contractor, currently NSL Services Group, employing the wardens.
Each parking ticket costs car owners £90 - or £45 if it is paid within 14 days.
The 34,690 PCNs issued on the streets of Belfast in 2016 were potentially worth up to £3.1m, with those issued in Northern Ireland as a whole worth as much as £13m.
The number of PCNs issued to drivers in bus lanes and bus-only streets fell from 32,254 in 2015 to 27,911 last year.
Transgressions on Donegall Square East generated most tickets (7,340), followed by Great Victoria Street (5,054), Castle Street (4,441), College Square East (3,706) and Donegall Square South (2,627).
A DFI spokesman said that "appropriate action" must be taken "where a vehicle is found to be parked in contravention of restrictions".
"There are clear protocols for traffic attendants to follow when performing their duties to ensure that parking enforcement is carried out as fairly and consistently as possible across all locations," he said.
"Enforcement of parking restrictions and bus lanes aims to reduce the number of illegally-parked vehicles. This, in turn, will reduce traffic congestion, improve road safety, and improve accessibility for all road users.
"The objective is to discourage illegal parking by issuing a penalty to those who park illegally."
But Mr Roberts said it was "absolutely vital" to make "significant changes to car parking charges and fines to support the growth of our town centres and high streets".
"If something isn't done to stop this ticketing blitz there are real fears that is could ultimately sound the death knell for many retailers," he added.