SWMBO, and Lunatics Taking Over the Asylum
by Peter Guest
SWMBO (She Who Must Be Obeyed) and I had an Imperial State Visit from JVH recently. We took him out for a pub lunch in my 1955 MG Magnette and scared the bejesus out of him with a combination of narrow Hampshire country lanes and a lack of seat belts (and bad driving, I hear John add). Still, I hope that you enjoyed it, John, and hope that you liked the pub, which is about 60 years older than the U.S.A.
I mention this because it introduced a very English way of doing business. The pub has a web page and an email address, and I duly booked a table with an email, or so I thought. I got no confirmation, so I phoned them. “Oh, we never look at the emails” was the happy response, “but I’ll book you a table now.” I guess that if you have been around since 1714, you are allowed to be a little quirky.
The second and rather more depressing experience with UK business practices was when I took an elderly relative to a financial institution to sort out some investments. The banker (he looked about 10 and hadn’t quite sorted out getting dressed; shirts are usually tucked into trousers, sonny) was there to help us. He read out various advertising brochures verbatim.
I learnt to read when I was 3 (precocious or what), so this was not really totally necessary. When questioned on a point, he looked totally confused, and I had to explain compound interest to him. I have no doubt that he is on a quite pleasingly plump salary, with benefits, and it reinforces the feeling that the banks have not yet learnt the lesson about pay rewards and giving value for money.
Anyway, back to parking. The lunatics really have taken over the asylum here in the UK, and we now have, as I trailed before, a law that prohibits us from using cameras to detect, record and penalize most on-street parking offenses. Also, now we can park illegally for 10 minutes before getting a ticket. Crazy Britain.
A recent conversation with Kevin Woznicki of IPS touched on a point that has been the source of much debate over here. Indeed, it is now the subject of a government consultation exercise. The issue is, Should people have the right enshrined in law to be able to pay for parking with money?
Kevin, of course, makes high-tech meters that use cashless payment, and I don’t think it misrepresents him to say that, from his vantage point, coins are a nuisance and inefficient. They increase equipment costs and maintenance requirements; cost money to collect and count; attract theft and damage; and all in all are a pain in the butt.
City parking operators would endorse this; I have heard figures as high as 10% of take being spent in cash handling, and all in all cards and phones are just easier for the city to handle.
I have a problem with this. The city is providing a public service, a convenience for the great unwashed public. It absolutely is not run for the ease and convenience of the officers and members. It is there for the users to use, and I think first and last the city should give the users what they want.
In order to drive a car, there is no obligation to own either a card or a phone, and even if you do, no obligation to have them with you and use them to pay for something.
My friend Cliff is a dollar millionaire; he doesn’t have a credit card, a computer or a mobile phone, and he is just fine with that. Why should he have to sign up to a commercial service in order to be able to utilize a public service; why should anyone?
By all means, put in the credit card reader, and the pay-by-phone, but until the state decides to privatize currency, as far as I am concerned, cash is king and should always be an acceptable way of paying the city for city services.
We had a very interesting – and to me a most unhelpful – court case decided in late April. I have talked about this case before.
Two years ago, chip-shop owner Barry Beavis had parked in a Chelmsford carpark, operated by ParkingEye, that allowed two hours free parking. Mr. B stayed more than three hours and got a $130 parking ticket.
Sounds simple, but under UK law, fines and penalties are applied by courts, not by parking contractors, and Mr. B argued that since the carpark is free to use, the owner had suffered no loss from his overstaying, so the ticket was a penalty and unlawful. They were only entitled to a sum of money equal to their losses and costs and, after all, Mr. B argued, if he had left and someone else parked, no money would have been paid to the carpark owner. They got money only from the “fines.”
This has gone to and fro, and ended up in the Court of Appeal in front of three senior judges, who decided that, if I have read the legal-speak right, although the law does outlaw a penal charge, it was proper and lawful to levy a charge at a level above the damages incurred that is sufficient to “deter” would-be parking “offenders.”
I can see the sense of this, but to anyone operating a private-land parking system, it just makes the situation more confusing. Before the judgment, we had a parking charge that allowed the losses and costs to be recovered, which was legal, and a penal charge, which wasn’t.
Now, somewhere in the middle, we have a “deterrent” charge. And although the three senior judges had ruled that $130 was, in this case, appropriate to be “a commercially-justified deterrent” without being a “fine,” as far as I can see, they have given no guidance, no “rule of thumb” about just what the parameters of a deterrent charge are.
If $130 is OK in Chelmsford, does that mean that $200 is OK in London, and would, say, $100 be too much in rural Yorkshire? Their lordships may consider that even attempting to set market rates or guidance for determining just what a deterrent charge is goes beyond their remit, but right now I think their judgment sheds more smoke than light.
And finally – the UK has just had an election. The party that won argued, among other things, that they had fixed the economy during the previous five years when they were the senior partner in a coalition government.
When they came to power, the national debt was £0.76 trillion pounds. Five years on, and the Treasury sets it a £1.36 trillion pounds – nearly 80% higher. I am not sure just how much more fixing we can take.
Peter Guest, a Consultant in the UK, is PT’s Editor-at-Large on all things British, European, Middle Eastern and Indian. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.