DCSIMG

Spat on, threatened and run over, pity the parking attendants

IN THE LAST 18 months, Morris has lost two stone in weight. He hasn’t had to change his diet, take pills, break sweat or swallow a Carol Vorderman fruit smoothie. What is more, he has been paid to do it. Before you tear up your gym membership and embrace this revolutionary new slimming programme, there is one other thing you should know. Morris is an Edinburgh parking attendant.

Since 1998, when Edinburgh City Council took over the enforcement of parking regulations and then contracted them out to a private operator, a small war has been waged between the local authority and the motorist. Parking attendants are the frontline troops and the battle zone is the city streets. I am pounding the pavements, alongside Morris and his colleague, Stewart, to find out what it is like to be part of the most loathed profession in the city.

In addition to walking eight hours a day, often in the pouring rain, with a kilo of kit round their waists, Morris and Stewart endure abuse on a daily basis. Aggrieved motorists shout in their faces, threaten them and occasionally take a swing at them. Stewart has been spat on. "It was pretty disgusting," he says. His attacker was fined 250 at the sheriff court two months ago. It seems a lot to endure for 5.93 an hour. Why, I ask them, would anyone want to be a parking attendant?

"I like being out in the fresh air and you are pretty much your own boss," says Stewart. Morris mentions the weight loss. Stewart mentions his dodgy knee which has miraculously healed since he started the job four years ago. He is back playing five-a-side football. Even the weather doesn’t bother them - there are showers and tumble driers back at the base.

What about the reaction of friends and family? "Blue Meanies" and "Mini Hitlers" are just two of the more polite epithets for parking attendants. Don’t they get teased mercilessly? "A bit at first," admits Stewart, "but not now." Their tendency to socialise with other parking attendants suggests they are not wholly immune to their pariah status, however. They would prefer it if I didn’t use their surnames.

Before joining Stewart and Morris, I have spent a couple of hours at head office with Jim Grieve, Edinburgh City Council’s transportation services manager, and Brian Butler, parking operations manager, who are keen to dispel a few urban myths, the main one being that Edinburgh parking attendants are crazed zealots who would happily stick a ticket on a pram if they could get away with it.

"The regulations have been there for a long time, but it is only in recent years that they have been properly enforced," says Grieve. "Our approach is all about fairness and consistency and to me that is not over zealous. What the public don’t always realise is that the parking attendants don’t make judgments. The parameters are already set. They issue the tickets and once a ticket has been issued, they can’t revoke it. Since the system was decriminalised in 1998, there has been a more consistent and sustained approach than previously." It is this consistent and sustained approach which is upsetting motorists, however. Does he have any sympathy for the harassed driver who arrives six minutes late to discover the dreaded red envelope on the windscreen? "Not really," he says. "The rules are quite clear and they exist for good reasons."

Attendants have no quotas, he insists, and are not paid commission. But they are expected to issue between ten and 20 tickets a shift in central Edinburgh depending on the beat.

Last year, Edinburgh motorists stumped up 7.1 million in parking fines. The number of tickets issued annually in Edinburgh has risen from 190,000 to 250,000 in recent years, largely, says Grieve, because of a change in contractor.

I ask about the hearse that got a parking ticket outside the funeral parlour. "That ticket was absolutely correctly issued," says Butler, who no longer tells people at dinner parties what he does for a living. "I personally investigated that one. There was a lot of history there."

THERE ARE AROUND 5,500 "pay and display" parking bays in the city and 7,000 resident permit holder bays. Policing them costs 5 million a year. The council’s profit is just over 2 million a year. Where does all the money go? Not into facilities for the parking attendants, that’s for sure. The headquarters are a subterranean warren in the city centre, with peeling walls and dirty floors. The loos are out of paper and rubbish is piled in a corner. The building is completely anonymous. There is no sign above the door and nothing to indicate its purpose. "We don’t want nasty things through the letter box," says Butler.

Central Parking System (CPS), the American contractor who won the council contract in 2001, employs 125 attendants. There are around 85 on duty each day and 60 on the streets at any given time. They operate 24 hours a day. Stephen Hardy, CPS’s parking manager, hands me a large, grey, waterproof jacket with the words "Parking Attendant" emblazoned on the back, introduces me to Stewart, Morris and Lesley, the PR lady, and we set off.

The first thing that hits you is the hostility. Walk down George Street in a parking attendant’s uniform and you can practically taste it. Everybody glares at us. Morris and Stewart avoid eye contact. I keep forgetting I am wearing the jacket and not only do I make eye contact, I smile. To the drivers, I must seem crazed; a parking attendant who is seemingly happy in her job. Nobody smiles back.

At one point I cross the street in front of an oncoming car. In March this year, an Edinburgh parking attendant was run over by a van. "I would never cross like that," says Stewart. "I would always take the uniform into account. If you see a car with a red envelope on the windscreen coming towards you, you need to get out of the way quickly."

In addition to portable printers, handheld computers and digital cameras, the parking attendants have walkie-talkies. A code yellow call will bring a colleague to their aid; code red will bring an instant response from the police. Physical abuse is rare, but verbal abuse is a daily occurrence. The abuse gets worse whenever there is a negative story about parking attendants in the press.

IT’S NOT ALL WRITING out tickets and cackling manically; there is more to the job than you might assume. The attendants have to calibrate their computers with the ticket machines every time they turn into a new street. They must also make a written note in their pocket book. When a ticket is issued, the date, time and number must be written on the envelope and the car must be photographed from six different angles to prove that there was no valid ticket in the window. They also keep one ear on the walkie-talkie. All Edinburgh parking attendants take part in the Welcome Host scheme and are expected to act as ambassadors for the city. At least four people come up to Stewart and ask for directions while I am with him. He is helpful and courteous each time.

We’ve been walking for an hour and we still haven’t issued a ticket. According to Grieve, the contract with CPS stipulates an average of 1.6 tickets per hour per attendant. It is currently operating at 1.33 tickets per hour per attendant. It doesn’t sound a lot until you remember that there are 60 of them out there. "We can issue anything up to 1,000 tickets a day," says Hardy. "I thought people would get wise to illegal parking, but they don’t."

Stewart and Morris are model attendants, but it is easy to see how you could become over-zealous in this job. By the time we hit North Castle Street, I am getting a bit trigger happy. It’s like a game of I-Spy; you want to nab as many as possible. By George Street I am beginning to understand why I get so many parking tickets. We meet at least four other parking attendants and it is here Stewart issues his first ticket. Drivers get a six-minute period of grace but the cars are being checked every five minutes or so. Nothing escapes them. "I would say George Street is probably the most efficiently enforced street in Edinburgh," says Stewart.

Stewart suddenly notices a car he recognises parked on a yellow line outside a shop. He types the foreign registration number into his computer. It is a persistent offender with hundreds of pounds worth of outstanding fines. The computer informs him it is "a high priority impound". However, Stewart still has to wait for five minutes before alerting the pick-up truck. In that time, the driver hares out of the shop into the car and drives off.

It’s time to head back to HQ. There has been no real verbal abuse, but we have been in a posse of four: a lone parking attendant is likely to attract more unwanted attention.

Retaining parking attendants is a problem. Turnover is currently running at more than 100 per cent and the sickness rate is around 10 per cent. Some leave after their first confrontation on the street. Others can’t issue the tickets without feeling bad about it. Some can’t cope with the physical demands. Recruits are told to bathe their feet in solution daily for the first fortnight. "If they get over the first three months, they tend to stay," Hardy says.

It seems tough that it is the parking attendants who face the abuse when the rules are set elsewhere. "The parking regulations are set in relation to congestion and demand," says Butler. "If they aren’t properly enforced, people will stay for longer and that throttles businesses. Shops need a quick turnover. People get angry because they get a ticket when they have just parked on a yellow line for a few minutes, but if you park for five minutes in a bus lane on York Place during rush hour, it can take 30 minutes to dissipate the effects of traffic build-up. I am convinced of everything we do and if we could just tell other people, they would be every bit as convinced." But even Butler knows that would take supernatural powers of persuasion.

Edinburgh’s parking zone is about to double in size due, Butler says, to demand from residents: "People can’t get parked near their homes. They are crying out for a controlled parking zone." So far, however, there have been 6,000 objections. "A high level," he concedes. The blow of having to pay for parking outside their homes for the first time will be softened, he says, by the issue of day passes for visitors. I assume that these will be given free to people who pay for a resident’s permit. "No," says Butler. "They will have to be paid for".

This, it strikes me, is the fundamental problem. If the council made a few concessions or the occasional goodwill gesture, motorists would feel they could drive around in their own city without being persecuted. People don’t live their lives on a 30-minute timetable.

Back at headquarters, I finish my interview with Hardy who is reminiscing about a ticket he received from Stewart when his car was briefly parked outside the office minutes before the cut-off time for the parking zone. Nobody, it seems, is immune. Lesley offers me a lift home but, as we walk to the car, she spots the dreaded red envelope on the windscreen. The little knot of parking attendants, smoking outside, cheer as she removes it. Over-zealous? No, just obeying orders.

FIGHTING BACK

A PARKING attendant has no discretion over the issuing of tickets. He responds to a vehicle, not the driver or the circumstances. Once a ticket is issued, the parking attendant cannot rescind it, but if it has been unfairly issued or there are mitigating circumstances, it can be cancelled by the council.

Around 12 per cent of tickets issued are cancelled each year.

If you want to dispute a ticket, write to the council as soon as possible including any evidence: for example, a delivery van which gets a ticket on a loading bay should send a delivery note. If a car is issued with a ticket outside a public toilet and the driver writes to say her three year-old son was being violently sick, the chances are that the ticket will be rescinded.

Every case is considered on its merits, but explanatory notices left on windscreens are unlikely to work. If the council rejects a driver’s story and the motorist still wants to appeal, there is a free formal independent adjudicator, The Scottish Parking Appeal Service, which is answerable to the Traffic Commissioner. Motorists can choose either a postal or a personal hearing. Around 2,000 motorists appeal each year, around 40 per cent of appeals are not contested by the council and around 450 win their case outright.

The council will freeze the cost of the ticket as soon as they receive correspondence about a disputed ticket. If you write within 14 days the ticket will be frozen at the discounted price of 30.

If you are loading or unloading a vehicle you can park on a single yellow line for up to 30 minutes, provided there is continuous activity. If your business takes longer, you can apply to Central Parking System for a dispensation.

The council is also considering introducing special parking permits for tradesmen.

 
 
 

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