A Councils supreme arrogance cost taxpayers over £1 million in spy camera blunder

Hertfordshire County Council finally succumbed to the inevitable and agreed at last Monday’s Tory led cabinet meeting to refund around 36,000 drivers an estimated £1.3 million. The money had been taken from motorists in a sting operation the County Council had set up last year, using spy cameras to photograph motorists entering a Hemel Hempstead bus lane.

 

Growing complaints from motorist who had been stung by the trap at Moor End Road and had begun receiving fixed penalty notices through the post demanding £30, with the threat of doubling the charge to £60 if motorists dared to try to take their complaints to the Traffic Penalty Tribunal.

 

Motorists at the time condemned poor signage which they said was only visible after it was too late to avoid entering the bus lane. Hertfordshire County Council ignored requests from Under-secretary of State Mike Penning to suspend the spy camera enforcement after he pleaded  “The thing to do surely is suspend any enforcement against people while they sort this out.”.

 

Local Liberal Democrat County Councillor Nick Hollinghurst said “I went down with a camera and took a lot of pictures and I sent them to Hertfordshire Highways. There were pictures of signs pointing in the wrong direction, sign with a signpost in front so you couldn’t  read it properly and one with a lamppost right in front of the sign telling you not to go down the bus lane. It’s no wonder people got confused.”

 

Then in September 2011 the story was picked up by the Daily Mail and The Sun which told their readers of a massive £16,000 per day being made from the bus lane spy cameras. Both articles (download here and here) featured quotes from Tory Councillor Stuart Pile, who is the Executive Member for Highways and Transport at Hertfordshire County Council. Just like Margret Thatcher, Cllr Pile’s mind was made up, he was not for changing anything at the junctions despite the incredible numbers of motorists confused by the bus lane signs.

 

Cllr Stuart Pile warning taxpayers of thieves

Cllr Stuart Pile warning taxpayers of thieves

Nutsville interviewed Stuart Pile in September 2011 to try to understand why he seemed so intractable. He first gave us a potted history of the Moor End Road bus lane telling us there has been prohibition on that road since 1992, which up until 2006 was only in one direction. He explained that as the road is the entrance to the bus station and because originally they had motorists parking in the bus lane it caused huge disruption to the bus time tables. He recalled that because the buses were unable to sustain a time table, routes further up the line towards Aylesbury were being withdrawn.

 

Pile told Nutsville “The Police asked us to intervene about 18 months ago, and install an ANPR camera” “There’s been a lot of controversy about the signage. The signage as installed not only has to meet the DfT guidelines but has to be approved by the DfT as does the camera. Of course that was all approved in December of last year (2010). So the fact that the Under Sectary of State who happens to be MP for Hemel has come out against it, he really should checking his facts because the DfT his own department has approved it all.” “We not only put in what the DfT approved, but about 100 meters further out we put in additional signs, huge yellow signs

 

We asked Cllr Pile about the revenue being claimed in the newspapers, to which he explained “We don’t actually achieve all of the fine income, because of the cost of monitoring the system, approving the tickets and everything else for every £30 fine we only get £8. So the income so far (as of September 2011) has only been about £38,000 on a scheme costing about £150,000

 

We asked Cllr Pile where had the newspapers got the figure of £600,000 from? He said “That’s the shear number of tickets that they expected us to issue. What they did was to look at the amount of contraventions that was happening and multiplied that assuming we were nicking everybody.”

 

The nitty gritty

 

Because the bus lanes in Moor End Road ran in both directions we wanted to draw Cllr Pile’s attention to the wording in the The Traffic Regulation Order (TRO).

 

Cllr Pile “The order was raised 15-Nov-2010, it says No person shall cause or permit any motor vehicle except a bus or taxi to enter and drive along that length of Moor End Road, Hemel Hempstead from its junction with Waterhouse Street westwards to its junction with New Bus Link a distance of approximately 50 metres”

 

Nutsville “Where does it say in there about the other direction?”

 

Pile “It doesn’t have to say the direction it says along the length of. So you mustn’t run a vehicle along that length of road, nothing about direction

 

Nutsville “Well it sort of does give a direction then doesn’t it, in the current TRO? to its junction with New Bus Link, that can only be in one direction can’t it?”

 

Pile “No it says the length of the road from here to here it doesn’t say anything about direction, and it doesn’t have too. Because it prohibits that length of road, it doesn’t say what direction, it doesn’t have to say a direction, it’s the road length that’s prohibited not the direction

 

Nutsville “I think that’s open to interpretation, the way it’s worded.”

 

Pile “That’s the standard wording as cited by the DfT.”

 

We came away from the interview with Cllr Pile sensing that there was a genuine traffic problem at Moor End Road. But developments over the following months were to show that he and the Tory council leader Robert Gordon were not going to listen to the public they were supposed to be serving, instead preferring to put their faith in one or more highly incompetent council officers.

 

A No To Mob member warning motorists

A No To Mob member warning motorists of thieves

At the same time the newspaper articles were published a campaign group called the No To Mob became very interested in the Moor End Road honey pot. The No To Mob are a group of volunteers who at present focus on councils who target motorists as cash cows.

 

If the Hertfordshire County councillors had only Googled the No To Mob to begin with they may have learnt that this group had been featured on the BBC’s Watchdog and One Shows, with their most high profile success being involved in Richmond Council refunding £1M worth of parking charges and disposing of one stuffed shirt Head of Parking along with the councils fleet of CCTV spy cars.

 

The No To Mob made regular visits to the Moor End Road site adopting their now familiar warning signs at the side of the road to tell motorists how not to get caught by the councils spy cameras. They tell us that at a conservative estimate the No To Mob have saved approximately 10,500 motorists (an average of 350 per week for 30 weeks) from receiving tickets.

 

The campaign group were also joined at the Moor End Road site by a local man nick named ‘The Hemel Hero’, later to be revealed as Dennis. He spent the last six months regularly visiting the site on his mobility scooter warning motorists of the PCN trap. Many motorist took time to stop and wind down their windows to throw insults at him, but at the end of the day it was Dennis who had the last laugh as he conservatively estimates to have saved motorist 5000 PCN’s, which incidentally has also saved Hertfordshire County Council from paying back between £150,000 to £300,000 in illegally derived income.

 

Dennis the 'Hemel Hero' next to a No To Mob member

Dennis the 'Hemel Hero' next to a No To Mob member

The No To Mob also wrote to, amongst others, councillors’ Robert Gordon and, Stuart Pile, telling them of their concerns regarding the enforcement of signs. They told the councillors that huge numbers of motorists were not able to see the signs in time. They also explained in great, and as it turned out expert detail that the Traffic Management Order was not enforceable on the eastbound carriageway. In addition the No To Mob made it very clear to both the councillors and their officers that the signs and road markings were also not legal. The group made numerous requests for the councillors ‘and their officers to come and meet them at Moor End Road for a site visit. These were always refused, it seems the councillors’ and their officers knew best.

 

Councillor Nick Holinghurst said “They [the council] seemed to have adopted an attitude very early on of toughing it out, and I really can’t forgive them for that.”

 

The No To Mob are not just a group of people standing at the side of the road with a sign, they are also made up of a group of experts in various fields, which unfortunately for Herts CC some of those expert fields cover TRO’s, road signs and lines. So began a long trail of emails between the No To Mob and Robert Gordon/Stuart Pile along with their Highway officers. You can download just a tiny part of that email trail here.

 

The campaign group quickly established that despite what Stuart Pile had told Nutsville in interview, the council had no special permission to use signs that were not authorised in the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD) from the DfT. Pile wrote to the No To Mob saying “I have again been advised by officers that the correct signing for the restriction in Moor End Road has been used and they do not require DfT authorisation.” Pile was digging his heals in, and backed his officers to the hilt saying “The sign combinations used at Moore End fall within the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions and we believe are lawful. Enforcement activity will  not cease as special permissions from the secretary of state for the signage used at Moor End Road is not required.”

 

The No To Mob went on to learn that far from forcing the council to use a spy camera at Moor End Road the Police in meeting after meeting had asked the council not to use cameras for enforcement.

 

So what about that TRO that Cllr Pile had read out to Nutsville, and which the No To Mob had challenged him on in multiple emails. It took a ruling by the Chief Adjudicator at the Traffic Penalty Tribunal (Ms Caroline Sheppard)  on the 30th March 2012 to back what the No To Mob had said from the start.

 

In her ruling the adjudicator said:

 

The wording of the Traffic Regulation order applied to westbound traffic only and therefore vehicles travelling east did not contravene any traffic order.

 

Ms Sheppard went on and on in her ruling for 14 pages, upholding all of the points the No To Mob had been making to Herts CC for the last 7 months.

 

Stuart Pile later described the damming ruling by the adjudicator as just a technicality.

 

(Download the adjudicators ruling here)

 

Hertfordshire County Council eventually held a cabinet meeting last Monday (23rd April 2012) which the No To Mob and Dennis attended. The group were banned from filming and recording the meeting which was completely against the recommendations of the Local Government Secretary’s Eric Pickles MP and the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State’s Bob Neill MP.

 

During and after the meeting not a word of thanks came from either the council leader Robert Gordon or Stuart Pile for the hundreds of thousands of pounds that both Dennis and the No To Mob had saved the council.

 

Even in interviews given to BBC Three Counties Radio yesterday Stuart Pile still believes motorists entering Moor End Road to be guilty, even though not one of them had committed any offence. Pile stated “Look at your conscious. We recognise we have a moral obligation here to give the money back. What I say to people is this, do you really want us to pay even more to you processing 35,000 £30 cheques or not. Will it be better to give that money to a worthwhile cause, and that’s what we’re suggesting.”

 

So Stuart Pile is attempting to take the moral high ground claiming that even though the council had no legal obligation to refund the money, he and his council were taking a moral decision to do the right thing. What Pile is not so keen to point out is that through the No To Mob the council were facing an investigation prepared for the District Auditor which could have led to all of the money being taken from the councils control, so what choice did Pile really have?

 

By the end of March 2012 Hertfordshire County Council had unlawfully issued nearly 35,000 tickets to the value of approximately £2.1m (35,000 x £60). Why did Stuart Pile refuse so many times to hold a site meeting with the No To Mob, or even suspend enforcement of what was an illegal trap for motorist?

 

The only real winners from this must be the enforcement company that Pile picked to supply and operate the spy cameras. They did nothing wrong and will keep the bulk of the revenue raised from the illegal PCN charges.

 

You can download a 19 minute MP3 sound file here of yesterdays BBC Three Counties Radio show where local people from Hemel Hempstead give their views on Cllr Pile’s moral high ground idea of donating money taken from them illegally to charity.

 

Today the No To Mob called for councillor Stuart Pile to do the morally right thing by asking him to resign for his million pound blunder at the taxpayers expense.

 

If heads don’t roll for this huge display of arrogance and incompetence, there is nothing to stop the whole farce happening again at Hertfordshire County Council.

 

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6 Comments

Kill SwitchApril 25th, 2012 at 8:17 pm

This idiot Pile simply has to resign, the arrogance of this man is incredible. He says he does not agree with the adjudicator, he thinks the motorists he fleeced should allow the council to donate the refunds to charity, would I be considered cynical if I suggested he wanted the tax relief on the charitable donations?

This fool really needs to take a good hard look at himself, surely even he, with all his arrogance, would then realise that resigning is the only decent thing he can now do.

JTApril 26th, 2012 at 8:49 am

Is there any question that elected officials responsible for this ‘robber baron’ approach to their voters will now be surcharged for this waste of voters money, I think we should be told

BHApril 26th, 2012 at 1:19 pm

This has really got my goat. I’ve been a traffic engineer for 25 years and got caught on this. No Road markings indicating it was a bus lane and inadequate signing on a roundabout that wasn’t prominent. When appealing I went through the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (2002) detailing what signing was wrong and why and offered a much better alternative. My appeal was dismissed, the letter from Herts CC treated me like an idiot telling me that all signing and markings had been checked and approved by DfT. This is an absolute lie as the whole point of the regs is to tell you what you can and can’t do DfT only authorise (or reject) things not in the regs. Went to Tribunal with the adjuicator and won. Their ruling basically said exactly what I had said in my appeal 5 months earlier. The utter arrogance and unwillingness to take on board what i and many other have said has now cost Herts CC (of which Iam a resident and council tax payer) a considerable amount of money. Surely when someone brings something to your attention and it is clear they know what they are talking about you listen. Not of your Herts CC you don’t.

Mark SaundersApril 26th, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Round of applause to NoToMob and Nutsville.

Round of slaps to Pile and his minions.

Arrogance really is the only applicable word. Flat out refusing to believe that the signage was both technically incorrect and practically inadequate. Insisting on putting in a camera instead of just sending out some sign monkeys armed with a copy of TSRGD and an ounce of common bloody sense. Then digging themselves deeper and deeper into the sticky brown stuff with every puff of their inflating chest, not to get too mixed with the metaphors.

DarcusMay 1st, 2012 at 12:51 pm

Mr Pile was unable to comment further as he had to attend his weekly ‘Flat Earth Society’ meeting.

MartinSeptember 8th, 2012 at 12:21 am

Am I missing something? it clearly says “westwards” in the order so the direction is given, why didn’t nutsville make more of that fact in their discussion with pike?

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