Smart Parking under the spotlight in law firm director’s report

November 13, 2017

The practices of a car parking management company which operates two of Newry’s main retail car parks are the subject of an extensive report written by former Camlough man, John Bannon.

In a 32 page paper given to The Examiner, Mr Bannon, who is the Director of an Independent law firm in London, outlines a number of procedural and legal irregularities he claims are being committed by private car parking company, Smart Parking.  The firm, which manages parking at the Damolly Retail Park and two retail car parks to the rear of Merchant’s Quay in the city, has come under the spotlight in recent months for what many perceive as unfair and extortionate parking charges being issued to unwitting motorists.   

Local political representatives have also vociferously criticised the parking firm’s methods and unreasonably large parking charges with many saying they have been inundated with complaints from angry motorists who have been slapped with parking charges of £100 from Smart Parking for alleged breaches of the company’s terms and conditions. 

Speaking to The Examiner about his report, Mr Bannon said he was compelled to carry out substantial research into Smart Parking’s procedures after his sister was issued with a £100 parking charge for overstaying her time in the Argos car park in Newry by just 16 minutes.  In his substantial paper, which he bills as a “comprehensive “tool-kit” to assist motorists who feel that Smart Parking (or other parking operators) have acted unlawfully or unfairly”, Mr Bannon reveals that he has submitted his work to the Northern Ireland Consumer Council as well as “WHICH” Consumer Service and to the Scottish Parliament’s Consumer and Competition Department.

The report highlights a number of issues of concern including the fact that no notices were erected at either Damolly Retail Park or Merchant’s Quay prior to the change of parking regime in August this year from attendant-monitored by parking company UKPC to CCTV-monitored compliance from Smart Parking – so that previously regular parkers were made aware of the implications of the changeover. 

Mr Bannon maintains that under Surveillance Camera Code of Practice, Guiding Principles, that “Clear rules, policies and procedures should have been in place before a surveillance type camera system is used and these must be communicated to all who may need to comply with them.”  Furthermore he points out that, as the new Smart Parking signage was affixed over the previous signage for UKPC, regular users would presume there was no new signage or new CCTV regime.             

The law firm director also claims that signage terms are listed in a confusing manner at the Merchant’s Quay car park, and that there is no provision to pay for extra time, which he says mitigates the disabled, who may need extra time in certain circumstances.  He also alleges that concerns raised by local political representatives and press as to why the 24 hour parking restriction at the Merchant’s Quay site is only stated on a few of the signs at the site has not elicited a clear response from Smart Parking.

Mr Bannon’s report claims that the appeals process outlined by Smart Parking is not applicable to Northern Ireland as the POPLA service used by the British Parking Association (of which Smart Parking is a member) “does not entertain appeals, even under BPA Code of Practice for motorists in Northern Ireland.”  He also highlights the inflated charges being levied by Smart Parking in Northern Ireland compared to the lower charges issued by other private parking companies in England, and asks why the company are being allowed to issue such extortionate fines.

The report also contains an non-exhaustive list of grounds to legally challenge a parking charge from a private parking company which includes checking the codes of practice for the regulatory bodies for parking operators regarding inadequate or inappropriately illuminated signage.

Mr Bannon also refers to Keeper Liability whereby it is the keeper of the vehicle who is liable for the parking charge and not necessarily the driver and he warns people to be aware of the “double-dipping” practice routinely employed by private companies like Smart Parking where a parking charge is levied where the motorist has made two (or more) visits to the same car park on same day, and yet has adhered to the contractual requirements not to return within two hours.   

The paper outlines grounds of appeal where an event has occurred outside of the motorist’s control, such as a medical emergency or mechanical breakdown and advises that in many cases store managers also have the authority to cancel a parking charge if requested.  He cites his own personal case where his parking charge was cancelled by the manager of a LIDL store in London when receipts proved that a “double-dip” had occurred.

He also believes consumers should consider “hitting the pockets” of retailers at the car parks by complaining and campaigning locally, urging boycotts until a reasonable regime of operating is introduced.  The London-based law director also calls for MPs, MLAs, local councillors and the Chamber of Commerce to initiate sustained campaigns calling for regulation of private parking companies.

Newry & Armagh MP Mickey Brady, who has personally spoken to Mr Bannon about his important work on the matter, said that this issue had caused major anger, worry and confusion to many.

“Private companies continue to be in the spotlight for unfair and harsh ticketing and issuing unreasonably large fines. This is an issue not new to Newry, indeed it is one that has  been ongoing for quite a few years,” Mr Brady told The Examiner.

“Myself and my Newry City Colleagues have on an ongoing basis voiced concerns raised to us by local people and visitors who have used these specific parks and found themselves facing extortionate fine demands. Mr Bannon’s work highlights procedural, legal and practice issues and it raises many points that hopefully we will get answers to.”

Echoing the sentiments of his colleague, Newry City Councillor Charlie Casey said,

“Local councillors have previously stated that in the first instance we believe the owners of these parks and businesses in their vicinity need to come together to reach some arrangement.

“It is really ludicrous that shoppers are finding themselves in this situation on a regular basis.It is an absolute disgrace that at a time when we are trying to encourage shoppers into the city to spend money they are being targeted in this way.

In a statement released to The Examiner from Smart Parking in response to a number of concerns we had outlined to them, a spokesperson for the private parking firm said,

“The BPA are the leading parking trade association in the UK and have been the conduit between the industry and government for over 50 years,  making it one of the oldest parking trade bodies in the world.  We are proud that we are members of the BPA and follow its guideline strictly. 

“In the case of both Damolly Retail Park and Merchant’s Quay car parks, we operate 24 hour parking restrictions to prevent parking abuse and to stop anti-social behaviour.  At both car parks we use the same parking management system that is in operation in thousands of car park across the rest of the UK, and the vast majority of people have no problems following the rules. 

“At Damolly Retail Park and Merchant’s Quay there are numerous signs that clearly highlight the terms and conditions of use.  Our signage is larger than the minimum requirements set out in the BPA’s guidelines.   However we would remind all motorists that when parking on private land they should always read the terms and conditions of use before deciding to park.

“Parking charges across all of our car parks differ depending on a number of factors, however charges in Damolly Retail Park and Merchant’s Quay are no higher than most other car parks.”