17 November 2013

Why do councils ignore operational guidance?

who is meant to be serving whom?

Local councils exist to provide services to residents, businesses and visitors. Parking is often described as a service which part of it is but much of it is a vast money making machine serving itself and taking your money. Councils are rightly concerned at the cost of providing services and always try to drive the unit cost down and a favourite method is to nudge you, or force you, to channel shift i.e. to make you use the method which is the cheapest for the council to process. If they can ramrod you into using a webform or eform (probably also have other names but basically a box or series of boxes on their website into which you can only enter certain details and these then get entered directly into the correct fields of the relevant software then you have taken the data processing requirement away and reduced input cost to zero) then you are using the quickest and cheapest method for the council. However they have forgotten they are there to serve. If you complete a webform you only get a copy of what you have done if the council send you one and this could be vital evidence in a PCN appeal.

The council have placed their administrative convenience in front of the customer's and have made us their servant by this forced channel shifting. In Mr Mustard's case this usually backfires as he simply refuses (unless there is no option) to use webforms. The reason is simple, if he is helping people with their PCN then he has a number of appeal points which he uses time and time again and it is easier for him to have all his emails together in neat files in the parking ticket section of Outlook from which he can easily cut and paste into a new email than to navigate his way through up to 17 pages of a webform (Camden council's form has only 5 pages to wade through som isn't the worst but really!). Mr Mustard has this year handled appeals in at least Barnet, Harrow, Islington, Camden, Hammersmith & Fulham and Haringey although he prefers to stick to Barnet as he knows their process errors inside out. He should be able to contact them all by email and letter but often he sees the dreaded webform being put forward as the first option. The upshot of this is that unless Mr Mustard is bang up against the deadline, he uses a traditional letter, for which he gets a free proof of posting, instead of the webform and thus the relevant council is faced with the most expensive method to handle. Hard cheese!

Mr Mustard decided to do something about operational guidance being ignored. He happened to have two PCN to appeal for a blue badge holding friend in Haringey and so he lodged a complaint. He has no particular beef with this borough who aren't actually the worst offenders (they are going to suffer when cctv for parking gets taken away though).

Here is the complaint.

I wish to complain about the fact that PCN issued by Haringey Council do not include an email address for appeals to be made to. This is a general complaint and not about a specific PCN.

I attach a copy for your convenience of Operational Guidance from the Department for Transport. Paragraph 1.4 points out that information printed in Comic Sans is something that authorities must have regard to.

In paragraph 10.4 it says, (in Comic Sans) that you should include an email address for motorists to use. The council does not do so. Please amend your practice as soon as possible to include an email address for appeals within a PCN.

Here is the response.

Thank you for your enquiry.

We have ( with our IT contractor) developed a more sophisticated online representation / appeal service for motorists.

This replaced the previous email offer. We do not intend offering the email option in addition to the online service and feel that we not only comply with recommendations and guidance in the Operational Guidance, but have gone beyond that expected.

How you can go beyond something you don't actually do is an interesting use of language.

Mr Mustard restated his complaint.

I refer to the below answer. We could debate for some time whether a webform (the system to which I think he refers) is more sophisticated or not than an email but that is the not the question at issue (something more sophisticated may not necessarily be more convenient or better).

I have no complaint with the council choosing to offer a webform in addition to email but not in place of it. Interestingly you offer both for complaints but not for PCN.

The council is not complying with Operational Guidance and so my complaint stands.

The council then said they were not going to change.

Thank you for your further enquiry with regards to the Council not complying with Operational Guidance.

I note your reference to paragraph10.4 of operational guidance and we are satisfied that this places no direct obligation on us or any other authority to explicitly offer an email channel for appeals.

We do comply with operational guidance and I am also satisfied that the channels we provide to motorists to appeal comply with statutory requirements.   As stated in our previous response, we have (with our IT contractor) developed a more sophisticated online representation / appeal service for motorists that you can use if you have internet access, something also needed to send an email.  Therefore  it remains our clear view that we have not removed any access channel that will disadvantage any motorist wishing to appeal a Penalty Notice.

Since the introduction of our online system (in line with many other authorities)  we have had no appeals to PATAS  based on grounds similar to that which you have outlined. In fact motorists are far happier to receive direct confirmation from our online appeals system that the appeal has been logged and immediately receive a receipt/ reference number for any future reference that their appeal, rather than simply sending an email.

I hope that you are satisfied with my response to your complaint. If you are dissatisfied, we cannot consider your complaint further under the Council’s complaints procedures. This is because your complaint related solely to the application of a council policy, which I have concluded has been properly and fairly applied. However, you may complain to an independent complaints service, the Local Government Ombudsman, who may be able to help you.

Mr Mustard sent a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman who has a huge postbag and a reduced budget so takes some convincing to take up the cudgels and is currently resisting. How did Mr Mustard have to submit his complaint, yes you guessed it, only one method was offered, by webform which of course discriminates against the poor who can't afford a computer, the computer illiterate, the disabled, the elderly & Mr Mustard. He duly filled in it. To be fair he was sent a copy but you can see how Mr Mustard was forced to present his complaint whereas he would have preferred to wax lyrical in his own way.

The omens for Mr Mustard's complaint were therefore poor from the start.

So Mr Mustard got to thinking about if other boroughs were better or worse than Haringey. He knew for example that Barnet's PCN (and he is only talking about ones attached to vehicles, not those sent by post) only allow on the back for written and webform representations but they do actually accept them by email to barnet@nslservices.co.uk even if their auto-acknowledgement is somewhat confusing in saying both that they do and don't accept representations by email! NSL have to print out your email, scan it and put it on the relevant PCN file which they often get wrong by forgetting to scan or attaching to the wrong file so using email is fraught with danger, but danger is Mr Mustard's middle name (actually he doesn't have one, his first name is Morris, any suggestions for middle names gratefully received).

So Mr Mustard duly sent off an FOI to every London Borough and the City on 1 October 13, although Mr Mustard didn't bother Barnet as he knew the answers. In theory by 1 November every borough should have replied but FOI (and Mr Mustard has rather too much experience in the field!) is rarely responded to on time by every London borough so there are gaps in his information which will be filled in as FOI officers read the blog and are now embarrassed (I know you all talk to each other about who this bloke is in Barnet who asks questions & insists on proper answers) and rush some answers out.

That is the good folks in Barking, Bexley, Brent, Enfield, Harrow & Lambeth, who subject to Mr Mustard being shown to have overlooked something, get "nul points".

please email corrections & additions to mrmustard@zoho.com

The answer in the letter column is, and should be, yes every time as that is specified in the Appeals Regulations 2007.

The email column should really also be a yes everywhere but it isn't. There are seventeen good boroughs and 10 bad ones in this regard, including the afore-mentioned Haringey.

The using the council website column has 19 yeses (so a method that isn't required features more often than the one that is specified in operational guidance, go figure). 14 of these councils do the decent thing and also offer email as a choice so should be praised for offering the choice. The 6 who only offer webforms and not email should be castigated or nudged back into line by the LGO.


please sit yourselves on the naughty step and reflect upon your behaviour. To get off the naughty step all you have to do is to add an email address for representations on the back of your PCN and you will go into Mr Mustard's reformed characters box.

Special praise goes to the City and almost as good as them Southwark. The City will hear from you in almost any way that you want to communicate with them and Southwark are also very considerate. It is easy for the City to be helpful & generous as they don't rely on parking for their income and have far fewer streets than most to worry about.

The phone option should be offered for those PCN which are glaringly wrong and can thus be cancelled at the first opportunity and for the benefit of the illiterate, the disabled, the blind (don't laugh, they may own the car and have a driver) and for anyone else who can't at this moment write a letter (broken arm maybe, etc).

Interesting to see the fax machine hanging on in 6 offices, it is a bit of a relic although many people now have all-in-one scanner/printer/fax machines so may have made a slight comeback from approaching obsolescence.

Having given out the prizes the wooden spoons (three are needed) go to

Hammersmith & Fulham

all three of whom insist on receiving representations by letter alone. Please bend over whilst the spoon is forcibly applied. You should be red-faced as well as red-cheeked.

Would any council who just happens to read this blog post please have a look at your policies and see if they could be improved? Barnet are, despite him getting nearly every PCN he touches cancelled, very helpful to Mr Mustard in this regard and when he brings to their attention, by direct email to a parking manager, some glaring ticket issue error they are usually pretty quick to agree and get it cancelled. Not all is perfect as the council won't give way on the moribund 2011 PCN which they are desperately still trying to collect and Mr Mustard is trying to kill off wholesale. They need the money!

Mr Mustard also asked a question of all councils at the same time about the extent to which each council implements the London Councils Code of Practice on Civil Parking and Traffic Enforcement. The entertaining answers to that, sent as a business as usual question rather than FOI, will have to wait until another day.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

1 comment:

  1. It is the Statutory Guidance that vexes me in that councils "must have regard" to it, but seem to ignore it in relation to CCTV enforcement. It is starting to get onto our wonderful adjudicator's radar, but so far not many successful appeals.


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