Features: August 8th, 2008

By Colin Forrest

Motorist can no longer be sure that they have evaded a parking fine when they drive away without a ticket on the windscreen. The ticket may arrive by post. Changes to parking regulations allow evidence from CCTV cameras to be accepted, without any human intervention. The effect of this change is that councils have to operate a parallel enforcement process that gets the ticket to the motorist. The author looks at the problems this causes.

Changes in regulations now empower councils to use CCTV camera images to enforce parking fines, but only in areas where it is too “difficult or sensitive” for an attendant to operate, such as a fast-flowing road or a busy junction. Prior to this ruling, parking tickets were only valid if placed on the vehicle or handed to the driver in person. Now, fines can be issued through the post up to 14 days after the alleged offence occurred. This new development requires a revised process for enforcing the fine.

This new ruling continues to generate a great deal of comment across the media. Many pundits and consumer rights groups question the real motive behind the legislation, asking whether it simply gives the green light to councils to up the hit-rate of tickets awarded and to spend the resulting profits to pay for wider services. In fact, under the new rules, Councils will no longer be able to set targets for revenues from parking or for the number of tickets awarded. Commentators also questioned the fairness of a system that enables tickets to be issued after the event, identifying blue-badge holding motorists as particularly vulnerable to this ‘fine now, deal with the circumstances later’ approach.

Impact of changes on the back office

To date, any opinion on this new legislation has focused on the impact on the citizen. But what of the demands placed on Local Authorities? Are Councils equipped to efficiently cope?

A look at recent parking ticket figures serves to underline the extent of the extra logistical burden now placed on Council departments. According to the RAC, of Britain’s 25m cars, just 1m are on the move and 24m are parked at any time. Across England and Wales, the number of parking tickets handed out to motorists is approaching 8m annually – equivalent to one for every three cars. In the capital, the number of penalty notices has jumped by 45% in four years to 5.9m.

Of course, not every ticket issued will be via CCTV, and not every ticket will require posting. But if only a small percentage of this volume is made up of fines despatched through the post this still represents a significant volume of mail that local authorities were not previously having to process.

The new parking legislation comes at a time when local authorities are already under enormous pressure to become more transparent, to make services more accessible and to comply with e-government directives. The challenge is to reduce existing spend whilst simultaneously improving the level of service and accessibility to the citizen.

Automating processes

Traditionally, local councils have been regarded as less than proficient at communicating with citizens. Whilst this may be changing, there is no doubt that, in many cases, existing practices are out-dated and still over-reliant on manual processes. If the additional influx of parking fine post is not factored in, Council departments could quickly find themselves unable to handle the volume surge.

Local authorities must be certain that any communications concerning parking fines are totally accurate and despatched on time and to the right person. Data security is one of the hot media topics of the moment and any business or public sector department failing in its data protection duty faces headlines that are big, bold and damning. Arguably, these headlines will echo longer for public sector bodies.

The answer is to evaluate current messaging practices and to gain a full understanding of how available technology can improve mail and messaging processes. Today’s hardware and software solutions can eliminate the risk of error from mail processing and can introduce unforeseen efficiencies to everyday functions.

The entire messaging cycle can be automated. Technology is available to fold and insert documents into envelopes – an otherwise laborious process. Envelopes can then be processed via digital meters which automatically weigh each mailpiece and add the correct postage amount to each item.

Local Government is under enormous pressure to cut unnecessary costs, to become more transparent in its operation, and to communicate more effectively with citizens. Introducing more efficient mail processes will go a long way to addressing each of these challenges.

There is no one-size fits all solution. Different authorities will have different needs – indeed, the earlier figure highlighting the number of fines issued in the capital compared to the rest of the country exemplifies this point. However, mail automation will result in communications that are accurate (controlled via barcodes to ensure 100% integrity), professionally presented and cost-efficient.

Cynical observers have suggested that the introduction of ‘remote’ fines is simply a way for local authorities to boost the war-chest. But the legislation makes clear that parking fine revenue targets are no longer acceptable. Indeed, for many authorities, the opposite is true – delivering fines through the post represents a burden. However, it may also be the necessary trigger to revamp existing communication techniques and to reap the long-term benefits of a more streamlined, automated approach.

Colin Forrest is the Mail Creation Product Manager, Pitney Bowes.