Ashley Bijster 19 September 2017

Preventing progress

The digital revolution continues to transform the way we live, work and relax. In this whirlwind of technological progress it’s hardly surprising that the prospect of ‘smart’ living in an increasingly connected urban community has caught the imagination. But let’s not get carried away on a conceptual thrill ride.

For a concept to become reality, it’s not just the legacy issues of an existing infrastructure that need to be overcome. Just because technology promises to deliver something in a better way doesn’t automatically mean we will be able to deploy the technology to achieve such improvements. If there are limitations or barriers that prevent the technology being used in the first place, then such improvements will remain as elusive as ever and the technology will be little more than a flashy white elephant.

Although data security and accessibility pose all kinds of challenges to regulatory authorities, such constraints are barely evident when it comes to mobile and personal computing. Here the technology is in the driving seat and the queues that appear for the latest i-phone or tablet show the hunger we have for new functionality and new forms of connectivity. The limitations are largely determined by the imagination of technologists.

It’s quite a different story when it comes to the deployment of technology for the broader benefit of society – such as the efforts to fulfil the concept of a smarter and more connected urban environment. Here, there is unlimited potential for existing technologies to improve connectivity, accessibility and living standards. And, on the face of it, there is fertile ground for all manner of new technological capabilities. Sadly, however, much of this potential goes begging because of a recurring and stubborn obstruction – outdated legislation. And, legislative fog is just as obstructive as definitive legislative wording.

Take the example of a new app to help drivers find, book and pay for a parking space in a busy and popular town or city centre. Such new technology is transforming the way people plan their journeys and visits to major entertainment and retail venues. But, booking and paying for on-street parking is quite another matter.

Some local authorities believe such a progressive approach is both logical and permissible, simply requiring a subtle modification to relevant Traffic Regulation Orders. Others argue that existing legislation prevents such a user-friendly parking initiative.

The British Parking Association believes existing legislation does not provide an obstacle to such an initiative. But the lack of clarity raises inevitable concern and doubt – and compromises the widespread adoption of such a technological advance, even though it has been adopted widely in other countries and in all manner of user-friendly apps.

In another area, the advances in CCTV and ANPR technologies are being used to great effect to improve customer service, maximise compliance and improve operational efficiencies – especially when implemented in accordance with the guidelines developed by the independent Surveillance Camera Commissioner. But such improvements can only be achieved in connection with parking on private land and moving traffic.

Existing legislation prevents local authorities – the principal provider of parking facilities in our towns and cities – from harnessing the benefits of such technologies in their own car parks. Consequently, they are not in a position to improve the convenience of the parking experience for their customers – not to mention the opportunity to improve the efficiencies of their parking and enforcement procedures.

There all manner of other examples. And, it would appear the situation is not helped by the split in responsibilities between the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport.

Rarely a day goes by where the resilience and relevance of existing legislation is not being tested by new digital advances and capabilities. But, in our urban communities, legislation developed in a pre-digital age is proving to be a stubborn obstacle that is hindering progress and the fulfilment of the smart city concept. This is a situation that has gone on for far too long with decisive action and promises being deferred time and time again.

Enough is enough. It is not unreasonable for service providers, urban planners, transport operators – as well as local communities themselves – to expect clarity and consistency in what, where and how different technologies can be used to improve the quality of lives in our cities. It is abundantly clear that legislation in connection with our urban environment and transport infrastructure is not keeping pace with technology.

It’s vital for all authorities to familiarise themselves and to understand the different technologies and the focus of current and projected technological developments. This would provide the insight and impetus for all parties to have a sensible and considered debate that truly embraces the issues that remain unresolved and the opportunities that already exist and lie ahead.

We have to wake up to the realities of the digital age and ensure our legislation provides a clear benchmark for ethical and service standards, but without preventing progress and undermining the pursuit of a more sustainable future. Only then can we truly embrace the advantages and transformational qualities derived from a smart and connected city.

And only then, can we expect the negative perception of parking and parking enforcement to become a thing of the past.

Ashley Bijster is managing director of Imperial Civil Enforcement Solutions

This feature first appeared in Local Government News magazine. Click here to register for your free copy.

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