GLEEFUL traffic enforcement staff have been exposed for celebrating fines to motorists in a series of documents which reveal the extent of Hammersmith and Fulham Council's determination to snare drivers.
H&F-based businessman Andrew Ashe, 53, spent two years extracting information from the council under the Freedom of Information Act, revealing a commitment to a target-based and revenue-raising culture among staff.
Comments in emails between parking staff included, "Another record month guys, well done", and, "Well done, Another increase...holidays, as expected, brings back the traffic". The documents obtained by Mr Ashe also reveal how the council:
Actively seeks to increase the number of fines it hands out to boost its coffers
Allegedly paid staff bonuses for meeting targets
Spent money from developers earmarked for community improvement on sophisticated cameras to catch drivers
Encourages extra enforcement when roadworks or closures effect targets
Broke guidelines by failing to carry out CCTV impact surveys
Fined seven 391 busses in one day at the notorious Bagleys Lane junction
Waived fines for the borough mayor Francis Stainton
Branded Mr Ashe 'vexatious' and tried to block his investigation
Mr Ashe said: ''The way this council goes about trying to extract money from its residents is deplorable and an absolute disgrace.''
In February, the Chronicle revealed it had issued more than £3.5m in fines in 2012 alone, and emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal the lengths to which the authority goes to reach its targets.
A stream of correspondence between heads of department and staff show a commitment to increasing revenue from fines, strategies on how to increase the number of tickets when profits dip and talk of 'increasing PCN's (penalty charge notices) quickly and with the minimum of fuss'. Staff member Anthea Ferguson says in one message she has been tasked with increasing revenue by £5million.
Other emails between staff include chat of 'top (revenue) sites' and 'another record for us' and getting things done quickly because there is 'so much money at stake', while workers in the council's high-tech control rooms are encouraged to do double-shifts to increase productivity.
One FOI response confirms the authority paid nearly £35,000 in staff performance-related bonuses over a two-year period between April 2011 and March 2013, which it now denies.
Another reveals concern among senior employees that road closures and roadworks impact profit. In an email in July 2011 to head of parking Dave Taylor, it is suggested a junction closure on Gliddon Road will cause a 'negative hit on U Turn tickets' before suggesting 'Harwood Terrace will be enforced more to compensate...'
In another message in June 2011, a staff member warns Mr Taylor technical problems with cameras "will have an impact on PCNs issued and subsequent income generated".
Further correspondence suggests the council has also flouted guidelines from the Information Commissioner's Office that operators should undertake 'impact assessment' to determine whether CCTV is justified and that cameras should only be used where they can 'address problems'.
When asked in an FOI request whether it had conducted an assessment at the notorious Bagleys Lane box junction in Fulham, the council replied that it did not hold any information. It also admitted it had no data on the relation between traffic flow and the position of cameras, despite insisting publicly that the purpose of surveillance is to reduce jams.
Drivers of the 391 bus have particular problems at the junction, on one occasion being fined seven times in one day. In a letter pleading with the council to change its design, operator London United says it has accrued fines to the tune of six figures there since 2005 and had started passing on the penalties to individual drivers. When it threatened to divert the route the council asked it to pay for changes to the layout of the junction.
Traffic rules are different when it comes to the borough mayor. In January 2012, then mayor Francis Stainton, who was sworn in for a second term earlier this month, was given a fine when the mayoral car stopped partially on a footway and near a bus stop in a restricted zone in Fulham Broadway outside her house for eight minutes.
Emails were exchanged between now-council leader Nick Botterill and the parking department and the fine was cancelled, despite it appearing to CCTV operators that Mrs Stainton was not on official business at the time. It was then agreed no fines should be issued to the mayor at that spot for the remainder of her term.
Mr Botterill is also involved in online messages regarding a new camera in Harwood Terrace to enforce a 'keep left' instruction, which head of transport Chis Bainbridge says will be paid for with money from developers St George, known as section 106, which is usually earmarked community improvements like new play areas, parks and cycle racks.
The borough's opposition Labour leader Stephen Cowan called for head to roll over the scandal.
He said: "We now know the Conservative administration have instructed their officials to deliberately trap motorists by fixing traffic lights and arranging other scams you would normally expect from the worst type of cowboys. We're calling for a full independent investigation and the resignations of all those politicians and officials involved."
Mr Botterill insists the reason behind the rise in fines is to improve traffic flows and claims rush hour congestion in the borough has fallen by 13.5 per cent. He denied the council's methods were illegitimate.
"If there were fundamental flaws in the design or legitimacy of our junctions and bus lanes we would be losing a large proportion of appeals, which we are not. In fact, we have one of the highest appeal success rates in London. The vast majority of drivers do not incur fines and, of those who do and then appeal, 75% are unsuccessful."
He went on to claim only one in 500 drivers now gets fined at Bagleys Lane and that 90 per cent of those are non-residents.
He dismissed congratulatory messages between staff as 'loose talk from relatively junior members of staff that does not reflect the reality'. "Our CCTV officers apply nationally agreed rules in an accurate way that is all about fairness and our approach is vindicated as we have one of the best records of winning appeals in London."
On borough mayor Francis Stainton being exempt from fines, he added: "It is, in our view, reasonable to allow for a short pick up period to prevent the need for an elderly lady to be out on the streets, in an area where there had been several violent muggings, wearing a considerable sum in gold regalia.
"We make reasonable allowances for many similar circumstances. It was not an exemption for the Mayor herself or her driver. Other PCNs have been issued in relation to the Mayor's car in different circumstances which have not been cancelled."
Panorama: Traffic Fines – Highway Robbery? 7.30pm BBC1 today .
More coverage to follow