The local government Ombudsman has urged councils to ensure they are using the correct legislation to issue parking fines at country parks.
The warning follows an investigation by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman into Kent County Council after a motorist complained about a penalty charge issued at a country park.
The penalty charge was issued by a contractor at the council-run Lullingstone Country Park.
The contractor told the motorist to pay the charge and then appeal to the council. The motorist did this - only to be told they had lost their right to appeal because they had paid the charge.
The council had made the charge under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, designed for private land, because it was being enforced by a private contractor.
However, the council should have used a Traffic Regulation Order, under the Traffic Management Act 2004, to issue the charge because the car park was on public land.
‘While councils have every right to charge people for parking at their country parks, and motorists can expect consequences for not paying, councils must ensure they are issuing any parking penalties under the correct process,’ said Ombudsman Michael King.
‘I am pleased Kent County Council has agreed to the recommendations of my report, and would now urge councils across the country to check their own parking charges to ensure all their parking enforcement is lawful.’
Mike Hill, Kent County Council’s cabinet member for community and regulatory services, said the council was ‘disappointed’ with the Ombudsman’s decision.
‘Kent County Council’s legal advice was that our enforcement process was correct,’ he said. ‘However, we have decided to accept the LGO’s decision.’
‘This is not about the right to charge for parking; the issue is about the process used when drivers ignored the parking charge,’ he continued.
‘Our nine country parks are extremely popular with the public and welcome 1.5 million visitors every year. The vast majority of our park users understand that every penny raised through car parking is invested directly back into the parks.
‘Unfortunately, some visitors choose not to pay their Pay and Display, hence the necessity for enforcement.
‘In light of the LGO’s report, the council is continuing to require visitors to Pay and Display and will enforce against any non-payment through alternative processes.’
The council has agreed to pay the motorist £100 for the time and trouble.