Councils across the country, from East Sussex to South Ribble, have been named and shamed for the increases in their parking income. It seems that the battle for public understanding has been well and truly lost. The BBC has ‘exposed’ sharp practice, while a Select Committee referred to the ‘suspicion’ that parking enforcement was used to raise revenue rather than keep traffic moving.
This is a classic case of local authority reputation loss. It reveals how, if we are to improve the sector’s standing, we must be tougher in selling messages and engaging citizens. Many councils are stuck in a cycle of poor publicity.
Some authorities have learnt how to tackle the parking issue and neutralised criticism. It’s interesting that many of the Government’s proposals, such as grace periods and training standards, mirror the practices of these authorities.
But there is a simple four-step strategy for reducing the impact of the parking problem.
First, play by the rules. Parking enforcement should be seen to be fair, so heads of communication have to warn leading members and officers that if you set ticket targets, people will make a reasonable assumption that you are targeting revenue, not poor driving.
Next, if you make mistakes, apologise. Smart authorities know from experience that rude wardens generate dreadful headlines.
Then: practice tough love. Publicise the rules through every media and warn people that contraventions will be punished. But also publish your complaints procedure.
Lastly, govern through consent. Richmond-upon-Thames involved local people in shaping its new parking contract. In doing so, it understood what people expected from parking and built the service around the public.
Determined and proactive PR will shift perceptions through consistent and credible public information, but practitioners have to spell out to their political leaders the dangers of not tackling this reputation issue.
Alex Aiken is head of communications at Westminster City Council.