WHEEL clampers – they’re right up there at the top of most people’s unpopularity poll, sandwiched between bankers and politicians.
They encapsulate our national obsession with car parking: yellow lines, tickets, clamps, wardens, enforcement firms. For the poor old motorist, it often seems as though the whole world is in cahoots to prevent him ever parking his car; he must drive around forever or else go home.
No other country seems quite as preoccupied with the issue of parking, perhaps because England is just too small and congested to allow the sort of laid-back, free-for-all approach that often prevails elsewhere.
But it is the unscrupulous tactics employed by some of the cowboy clamp operators that so enrage the most even-tempered of us. Hearses, nurses, ambulances, even police cars are not immune from the determined clamper.
So it is good news that, at long last, the Government is doing something to round up the cowboys and bring a little more fairness to the whole business of dealing with illegal parkers.
New legislation, due to come into force in November, will ban clampers from operating on private land in England and Wales. Anyone attaching a ‘Denver boot’ or towing away a car on private land will be for the high jump.
As a result, more than 2,000 clamping licences will be revoked. Only police or councils will be allowed to immobilise or remove a car in exceptional circumstances, although private firms will still be able to issue penalty tickets.
Home Office Minister Lynne Featherstone said: “The Government is committed to ending the menace of rogue private sector wheel-clampers. Reports of motorists being marched to cashpoints or left stranded after their car has been towed are simply unacceptable.”
Regional and local transport minister Norman Baker said: “Cowboy clampers have had ample opportunity to mend their ways, but the cases of bullying and extortion persist. That is why we are putting an end to these outrageous practices to ensure that drivers no longer have to fear intimidation from rogue traders, allowing the parking industry to begin to restore its reputation.”
Lawyer Nick Freeman, who specialises in motoring law, said: “For a long time this has been nothing but an unregulated racket operated mainly by unscrupulous cowboys, with some people making a lot of money from the misfortune of others. For motorists who fall foul of this unfair practice, they have no choice but to pay an extortionate release fee.”
AA president Edmund King welcomed the move as a victory for justice, bringing an end to a draconian punishment which had caused misery to motorists for often minor mistakes. “We have been campaigning for a ban against this legalised mugging for many years,” he said. “Too many clampers have been acting like modern-day highwaymen for too long.”
But RAC Foundation director Stephen Glaister warned that banning clamping would not end disputes about parking on private land. He said there should be a fair system that found the right balance between protecting motorists and landowners.
Clamping on private land is estimated to be worth £1bn a year to parking enforcement companies.