29 January 2014

One Barnet parking contract - less for more

Mr Mustard's twitter followers asked why NSL managed to issue so many more PCN than Barnet Council and then collect a lower amount of money.

To save you going back to the previous blog (you easily can by clicking on older post at the bottom) the number of PCN went up by 30,000 in the year that NSL took over (they were in charge of issuing and processing for 11 months of that year) and the sum recovered from motorists for PCN fell by £1.4 million - that is a spectacular result by any measure - spectacularly bad unfortunately. Mr Mustard seems to recall the council "Leader" Richard Cornelius telling the audience at the BAPS Question Time event how well this contract was working; you didn't have a clue did you Richard? you were simply bluffing. The contract with NSL was intended to save £600,000 a year.

Mr Mustard does accept that costs are down by more than the drop in income but he doesn't have an analysis of why that is so (he might have to make his first FOI request for many a month) and thinks that it is because there are a number of one-off events such as the movement of £167,000 out of the parking budget into the customer services budget. We must compare apples with apples, or more likely lemons with lemons in this case. Costs were only targeted to reduce by £600,000 so a drop of £1.9m must have some other explanation.

So possible reasons for the dismal performance by NSL are (and these are simply the as informed as possible views of Mr Mustard, if NSL want to write in and explain Mr Mustard will publish what they have to say)

When traffic wardens were employed by the council they were paid about £10 an hour. New ones taken on by NSL to fill existing and new vacancies are only paid £8.20 an hour. Applicants are likely to be of lower quality.

Traffic wardens were being sent out on the beat before they had sat their NVQ in parking tickets which would be a breach of contract by NSL that was probably swept under the carpet by Barnet Council; at least until Mr Mustard asked a direct question about the start dates and exam pass dates of traffic wardens. It is only a level 2 NVQ which isn't exactly difficult to obtain. You might think that NVQ stands for National Vocational Qualification but others know it as Not Very Qualified.

Traffic wardens are issuing more marginal parking tickets which motorists are more likely to contest. People have an inbuilt sense of fairness and won't pay if they have been unfairly treated. Marginal tickets include for being 2cm across a dropped kerb, having half a wheel on a bay line, overstaying for 1 minute, being ticketed whilst in the process of paying by phone and being stood next to the traffic warden and telling that what you are doing. 

Parking tickets were also being issued when you, or a visitor, parked across your own dropped kerb (which only serves your property) and which should only be enforced if you ring up saying there is a problem. 

Parking tickets have been issued for scratching out vouchers with a pen instead of a coin. Ridiculous as the voucher has been rendered unusable a second time.

When NSL took over the existing back office team of local people who answered your letters and emails about parking tickets were all made redundant (a handful scrabbled to find new posts elsewhere within the council) and the whole operation was moved to Croydon. Posts that were previously worth £25k were suddenly only worth £18k. The quality of staff employed by NSL must be lower than those previously employed by Barnet Council directly.

Some of these new Notice Processing Officers (NPO) simply don't know enough about parking law and get corrected by the independent adjudicator at PATAS who is legally qualified. These NPO keep writing, for example, that you should go on the internet before you set off on a journey to see if Saracens are playing. The Adjudicator keeps giving that comment a drubbing.

The back office is in Croydon so there is no local knowledge or affinity with the residents.

The back office team should have been increased in size by 20% to reflect the increased volume of parking tickets which will have led to an increased volume of appeals. It probably hasn't been increased in size. In fact, as NSL are paid a fixed price per month they have probably tried to slim down the team. You can see the temptation to do that. 

Some of the extra PCN were due to the Saracens Zone which has added from 200 to 500 parking tickets on each match day (up to 16 a year). This has led to new arguments because the zone wasn't advertised well enough, because the zone is far too large and because people miss the zone entry signs and then have no idea if it is an Event Day or not.

The back office team weren't familiar with the back office software used by the council and which NSL are still using (new software is being purchased later this year; that will lead to a few new cock-ups). This meant that some parking tickets weren't chased at all and others were wrongly chased and had to be cancelled.

NSL were meant to have had bailiffs ready to roll on 1 May 12 but they didn't get them appointed until April 13. How incompetent can you get? The delay also meant that the parking tickets sent to bailiffs were harder to collect as many more of the cars would have been sold on or scrapped and so couldn't be seized.

Finally, the whole structure of parking enforcement is not designed to enable good communications and team working.

Traffic Management Orders, permits, sign installation and the organisation of line painting are all managed by the council out of North London Business Park or the Mill Hill depot.

Traffic wardens work out of Solar House in North Finchley (which incidentally will be why there are so many traffic wardens in the town centre there. Mr Mustard saw one at 8.10 and two more at 8.20 whilst eating his poached eggs on toast at Cafe Buzz and co-incidentally reading emails from the parking manager about the Lodge Lane Car Park Meter)

Documents are scanned in Worthing.

Challenges to parking tickets are dealt with in Croydon.

Not quite sure where bulk document printing takes place but it could be somewhere else again.

How can the poor client side parking manager ensures everyone works as a team when they are in so many different places? He can't, as we see.

This experience has a parallel in the Capita contract for collecting Council Tax. If their collection performance is inferior to that of the previous council team the drop in income could obliterate any cost saving.

If Mr Mustard had his way he would bring parking back in house. Mainly because it is a front line service that the council is measured by and it always upsets people which causes reputational damage to the council and secondly because it would be twice as easy to manage if it were in one place. The money doesn't matter. It will always make a profit which shouldn't be used to artificially subsidise Council Tax. The surplus made from parking tickets should be used for special one off projects which otherwise wouldn't happen and should be spent in the following year so that there isn't pressure to make a certain amount. The surplus should be spent on things that make Barnet a better place to live.

Yours frugally

Mr Mustard

Mr Mustard tenders his apologies to the council client side parking team who have probably now got senior management and/or the "leader" or Cllr Dean Cohen breathing down their necks wanting instant results which just isn't possible when each PCN is only 0.0000606% of the problem. This mess is not of your creation; it is the fault of the Cabinet Resources Committee for voting it through.

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