Westminster Council make a welcome U turn over PCN’s refunds

In January we revealed the sorry tale of some incorrect road signs and the all too regular appearance of Westminster Councils CCTV spy cars in Soho’s Golden Square. The Westminster City Council’s CCTV spy cars were trapping motorists who were driving straight on when reaching the end of Lower James Street, something which had been a legal manoeuvre for decades.

For an unknown reason someone at Westminster City Council had altered the signs at the end of this road to force drivers to turn left. The sudden change in signage also coincided with Westminster City Councils’ many CCTV spy cars making multiple daily visits to the new contravention site, which fast became a honey trap for motorists. Westminster City Councils CCTV spy cars were often spotted hiding in the corner of Golden Square parked on double yellow lines tucked behind a parked car for extra cover.

It wasn’t long before the parking pressure group No To Mob learnt of the new honey trap, causing them to mobilise their group mounting their own version of the ‘Big Society’. Their modus operandi in the winter months leading up to Christmas was to stand at the junction holding up signs to warn motorists of the new road layout. Their course of direct action was so effective it prevented 100’s of motorists receiving an unwelcome penalty charge notice (PCN) weeks later through the post demanding £120. As effective as the No To Mob were, as a voluntary group they were not able to be on duty at the dodgy honey trap every time the CCTV spy cars were. Consequently 397 motorists received a demand for money on their doormat from Westminster Council.

As well as the on-street action, members of the No To Mob also conducted research in to the traffic management orders (TMO) for the junction, just to check that Westminster City Council had the proper authority to issue PCN’s.  Their research led them to discover that no authorised changes had been made to the TMO, therefore making all the PCN’s invalid.

Mistake or unjust enrichment

The No To Mob immediately notified the Council of their findings, which led to the CCTV spy cars being withdrawn from Golden Square and the misleading road signs were taken down. Traffic was allowed once again to proceed out of Soho towards Trafalgar Square, instead of being forced into a loop back into the heart of Soho.

As 397 motorists had not committed any offence yet still been sent demands for money surely the Council would be refunding them as a matter of course. This proved from initial statements by Westminster Council, not to be the case. Westminster Council took the view that if any members of the public had paid the PCN fee, they should use the standard appeals mechanism to claim back their money. There is of course at least two problems with that approach: the public had to know about the dodgy signs, and secondly the money legally belonged to the public and not Westminster City Council.

With the frequency of the Councils CCTV spy cars visits to the honey trap, and the Councils reluctance to hand back the publics money, we questioned whether this was an honest mistake or a deliberate ploy to raise revenue from the motorists.

Cllr Lee Rowley

Cllr Lee Rowley

We described in our post at the time ( view here ) that because of the lack of response from the Councillor for parking and transportation, Lee Rowley, we had notified the District Auditor.  It’s a great shame that Councillor Rowley was reluctant to be open and transparent with Nutsville as to why motorists would not be automatically refunded. Instead there was only silence from the Councillor, just as we have recently experienced with our questioning over the Sunday and weekday evening parking charges.

Faced with a shy Cllr Rowley we had no option but to once again submit our concerns in a letter of objection to the District Auditor.

In our letter of objection we said:

“It has come to our attention that WCC has been issuing illegal moving traffic violation PCNs at Lower James Street by their own admission. As this would seem to constitute illegally derived income it falls within your remit to instruct WCC to cancel all outstanding PCNs issued at this location and to reimburse all the PCNs paid and all PCNs that have been realised to bailiff warrants to be reimbursed in full. We should like to know how many PCNs have been issued from April 2008 to April 2009 and from April 2009 to April 2010 and how much income has been illegally derived and what action you are going to take to remedy this?”

One month later we did finally meet with Cllr Rowley and again put to him the question of automatically refunding all of the monies Westminster Council had gained from the Soho honey trap.

To our dismay Cllr Rowley set out Westminster City Councils position telling us: We recognised that we issued tickets that people can have refunds for. If people want to contact us, and we’ve encouraged people to do so, and in any of the press articles there is a statement encouraging people to do so. It is an operational decision and it’s a decision the Council has taken which will be that if people want to contact us we will refund, that’s our position.”

So Councillor Rowley remained intransigent, using the words ‘operational decision’ as if to spread the moral guilt with a meaningless ‘we know best’ civil service phrase straight from a Westminster Council wannabe Sir Humphrey, we guessed.

Sent off with a flea in our ear we just had to wait to see what effect, if anything the intervention of the District Auditor might have.

The good news

The past two weeks have seen dialogue resume with Westminster Council over the automatic refunding of the PCN charges. Westminster Council told Nutsville:

“There were 397 PCNs wrongly issued between 8-31 December 2010, for failing to drive in the direction shown on the arrow – ie. for driving straight ahead from Lower James Street into Sherwood Street.  52 have been cancelled upon challenge.  119 were placed on hold indefinitely and have not progressed since.  226 were paid totalling £16,260.  Of those paid, at present 33 have been refunded, totalling £3,720.”

“We are being proactive. We are in the process of writing to the registered keepers of vehicles where PCNs have been paid and not yet refunded, inviting them to apply for a refund.”

This was great news because not only were the majority of the motorists likely to get a refund, but also Westminster Council which once seemed entrenched had done a U turn. Westminster Council explained to Nutsville that it was questionable that the Council had the legal power to make automatic refunds back to the motorists’ credit cards. Nevertheless individually writing to each and every motorist’s to let them know they could have a refund is a far more superior method for handing back the money, than a motorists’ stumbling upon a newspaper article. Remember Westminster Councils original position was that motorists were invited to appeal. This of course was dependant on the motorists learning of the signage error from the media and having the optimism that the loathsome appeal process would actually pay back their money in the end.

To now have Westminster City Council proactively contact the recipients of PCN’s has to be the right thing to do and reputationally far less damaging for the Council than Cllr Rowley’s negative position.


Not a precedent

Although this must be looked at as an individual decision based on the circumstances surrounding this particular junction, other local authorities should take note of what Westminster Council have done. During the intervening months since the No To Mob discovered this CCTV enforcement irregularity, they have gone on to discover other similar cases.  Richmond Council stand out in particular after it was discovered their CCTV spy cars were not correctly licensed, causing the Council to set aside over £1M for possible refunds. Although Richmond Council accept that motorists were incorrectly sent PCN’s and have suspended all their mobile CCTV enforcement, they have so far refused to directly contact the individual motorist to advise them of their entitlement to a refund. Instead Richmond Council proposes to spend around £100,000 toward a series of press advertisements highlighting their error, hoping ripped off motorists will learn through the grape vine about the refunds.

Richmond Councillors have still to make a final decision about the refunds, which is expected this  September. But Lord True, leader of Richmond Council has taken legal advice on the matter of proactively returning the money and says that the Council cannot legally make automatic refunds.  So in light of Westminster City Council’s new approach, perhaps there is a way out for Richmond Council.  As Lord True has said The more of this money is repaid the happier I will be” we hope Richmond Council will do their best to contact each motorist individually just as they managed to do when sending out the PCN’s in the first place.

Why disband the Audit Commission

Nutsville has made use of the Audit Commissioners to act as an independent set of eye’s in cases such as the one described above. Yet back in August 2010 last year the Secretary of State for Local Government, Eric Pickles MP announced his intention to put an end to the Audit Commission on the grounds of a “new era of town hall transparency”.  His intention for allowing this greater transparency is to let Councils outsource their auditing to the private companies they choose.

The Audit Commission’s responsibilities for overseeing and delivering local audit and inspections will stop; the Commission’s research activities will end; audit functions will be moved to the private sector; councils will be free to appoint their own independent external auditors from a more competitive and open market

The new Government will set in train measures to radically scale back centrally imposed, bureaucratic and costly inspection and auditing, saving council taxpayers money. The audit expertise of the Commission will be moved into the private sector.” (view source )

The question of disbanding the Audit Commissioners (AC) has been passed on to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) for consultation.

The AC is strongly opposed to the proposals to outsource their role to private companies picked by the Councils saying “Independent appointment is one of the main safeguards to audit independence. It should not be set aside lightly.”

Independent audit is an important buttress of localism as it provides assurance to local people on public bodies’ stewardship and use of public money. Local people often refer matters to appointed auditors to investigate, or to report on in the public interest. Local people may not turn to auditors as readily if they know that they have been appointed by the council.”

Hardly a subject for the mainstream press, but who will be checking how the Councils spend your money, and how will the public truly be able to be ‘armchair auditors’ when there is no independent body to report concerns too. Perhaps the Local Government Ombudsman, don’t make us laugh.

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3 Comments

Esinem: NoToMobAugust 31st, 2011 at 9:41 pm

At last! Brilliant!!

David HSeptember 1st, 2011 at 10:09 pm

F**ing good work – Well done Nuts!

Now, can we just clarify the matter about Colon Barrow and his Maserati. Does it have a free parking permit or not?

And can you please not show images of Rowley looking like a rabid caught in the headlights of a scamera car. Its distressing to old folk and makes young children burst in to tears and drop their ice-cream.

That nose is quite something – not seen anything so pointy since we had a snowman in our garden in the heady winter of 1965

Esinem: NoToMobSeptember 10th, 2011 at 4:10 pm

I’m not a medical man but could Cllr Rowley be suffering from Naso Oblongo Mendax aka Pinocchio’s Syndrome? I think we need a professional opinion.

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