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Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates

Volume 651: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Milling.)

I sought this evening’s debate to raise awareness of the unethical practice of commercial car parking firms issuing unreasonable parking and trespass enforcement notices against haulage companies in my constituency and elsewhere. I also wish to seek assistance from the Government to ensure that a proper framework is in place to properly address the unacceptable behaviour of commercial car parking enforcement companies, which are damaging the British haulage industry and threatening its profitability and jobs in Suffolk and, increasingly, elsewhere in the UK.

This issue first came to my attention when Magnus Group, a haulier based in Great Blakenham in my constituency, invited me to visit and asked for my support. Magnus Group is supported by in excess of 30 other UK road hauliers that collectively have the backing of the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association. I am grateful to Magnus Group and Bartrums, another haulage company in my constituency, based in Eye, as well as Anchor Storage Solutions in Kenton and the Road Haulage Association for helping me to prepare for this debate.

I will begin with a little background for the Minister. The examples I will raise are particularly pertinent to Suffolk, and although I am raising concerns on behalf of road hauliers, my constituency being landlocked, I will give examples from the UK’s container port in Felixstowe. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) shares my concerns, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous).

Felixstowe port receives in excess of 45%—close to 50%—of the UK’s container traffic, so the issues I am raising affect haulage companies not just in Suffolk but throughout the UK. Given the importance that the Government are placing on supporting UK trade as we go through the Brexit process, unethical practices that are affecting the UK haulage industry and its competitiveness must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Trinity Distribution Park in Felixstowe is owned and operated by Trinity College Cambridge and managed by Bidwells, an estate management company, which in turn employs the services of a commercial parking enforcement company called Proserve. Trinity owns much of the land around the port of Felixstowe. To date, it has failed to engage with the concerns of the road haulage industry. It is concerning that it appears to be allowing its agent, Bidwells, to employ an unregulated enforcement company which is using unreasonable practices to manage traffic on and around its property. Roads under the jurisdiction of Proserve at Trinity Distribution Park include Dooley Road, off the A154 at Walton Avenue, the BP garage on the A154 at Trinity Avenue, Blofield Road, Parker Avenue and Fagbury Road.

While the hauliers recognise the need for reasonable enforcement, they object to the unreasonable actions of Proserve, backed by Bidwells. Enforcement, when required, must be conducted in a fair, transparent and reasonable manner. Proserve’s actions include levying unreasonable charges and fines on hauliers—£180, rising to £250 if not paid within 14 days; failing to sign up to a regulated appeals procedure to monitor the appropriateness of the fines and trespass notices that it hands out; applying additional charges if and when fines and trespass notices are challenged—£37.50 per challenge; rejecting, without due process or consideration, many of the challenges to the fines and trespass notices that it hands out to hauliers; blocking in lorries and other vehicles owned by road hauliers, and using the process to issue trespass notices for each hour during which the vehicles are blocked in; and issuing trespass notices for vehicles that have stopped for only one minute, for example when conducting a parking manoeuvre such as a three-point turn.

There are a number of concerns about the legitimacy of the trespass notices themselves. For instance, Proserve has no access to the DVLA database, and notices are therefore issued to businesses on the basis of the livery of the vehicles concerned. Incorrect or no registration numbers are supplied to the hauliers on the notices. Notices and fines are sent to the wrong addresses, thus delaying their receipt by the intended recipients, who incur additional penalty charges as a consequence. There are substantial gaps between the dates recorded on notices and the dates on which they are received by haulage companies, and those delays also lead to additional penalty charges. Proserve claims on its notices that it uses the DVLA to help it to enforce trespass notices. The DVLA categorically denies that, and has advised the haulage companies affected to take the matter up directly with Suffolk Trading Standards.

There are also disturbing stories from a number of haulage companies which tell me that Proserve has told them that it will “go easy on them” if they pay it an annual fee. In effect, Proserve is asking hauliers to bribe it to stop handing out unethical fines. Companies that do not pay the fee find themselves receiving more attention from Proserve, which then increases the number of fines and trespass notices. Proserve seems to be operating what is, in effect, a mafia-style protection racket which penalises hauliers who refuse to comply. Bidwells, the managing agent, appears to stand by Proserve’s enforcement notices and practices, and Trinity College does not even want to know what is happening. It has refused to engage with hauliers who have raised concerns with it.

As I am sure the Minister will know, this practice is extremely damaging to road hauliers and their businesses when they attempt to deliver to and collect from businesses trading from Trinity Distribution Park. Many have either ceased to trade with businesses located there, or are becoming reluctant to do so because of the risk of trespass notices and fines. Felixstowe is the UK’s biggest container port, but the unethical behaviour of a parking enforcement agency is now preventing businesses from operating correctly in the port, and hauliers are finding it difficult to carry out day-to-day operations. The high risk of trespass notices means that the hauliers face having to increase their costs to their customers, pricing them out of the market and preventing them from competing fairly. The knock-on effect to business is that companies’ operations are becoming less efficient and less profitable, and there is an increased threat to local and national haulage and storage jobs.

I have also been provided with legal advice from a company in my constituency, Hemisphere Freight Ltd, which has been affected by the actions of Proserve. The advice is as follows:

“The landowner could be in breach of lease if it has authorised or permitted Proserve to cause obstruction and harassment on the estate roads.

The sub-lease provided does not support the assertion made by Proserve that there is a clause in all the leases to stop vehicles standing or permitting others to stand on any of the private estate roads. In the sub-lease provided, there is not an express clause that prohibits vehicles from queuing.

There is no contractual agreement between vehicle operators and the landowner.

The vehicle operators access the estate roads as licensees of the leaseholders of the premises visited. It is not clear that queuing on the estate roads is a trespass. The fines levied for alleged trespass are not enforceable.”

Because there is no clear legal framework or requirement for Proserve to be part of a trade body, its actions might be illegal but it can still operate in the unethical way it chooses to, and it continues to punish road haulier companies with impunity.

It is also worth reflecting on the direct experience of three companies that are being badly affected by the actions of Proserve and the inertia of both Bidwells and Trinity College Cambridge in tackling its unethical behaviour.

Magnus Group is based in Great Blakenham near Ipswich. Kevin Parker, managing director of the Magnus Group, tells me that it was formed in 1973, has gradually grown and now employs over 140 staff, but he is concerned that the damage being done to the company by the actions of Proserve might pose a serious threat to jobs in the future. Over the past six years, Magnus Group has paid in excess of £7,000 in fines issued by Proserve for both Ransomes industrial park in Ipswich and Trinity Distribution Park in Felixstowe. However, Proserve’s actions have escalated in recent weeks and months in Felixstowe.

Magnus Group has now opted to stop paying these fines after receiving a trespass notice with an unknown registration number on it. When it queried this with Bidwells, the land agent, Magnus was told it was not to be questioned and that the fine was based on the vehicle’s livery. Magnus Group has also received a fine for a vehicle that has never been registered to the company. The advice from Bidwells was that the fine was to be paid as it carried the livery of one of Magnus Group’s customers, Specialized bikes. One such trespass notice, or letter, from Proserve advised that Magnus Group’s licence to enter Trinity Distribution Park has been withdrawn by Trinity College’s agent, Bidwells. Magnus Group has never seen or received any notification of such a notice, nor the need to have a special licence. It has requested on a number of occasions to have sight of the licence, but neither Proserve nor Bidwells have complied with the request, which has thus far been ignored. Proserve’s trespass notice states that Magnus Group has 10 days from service of the notice to pay the full amount. If it does not, legal proceedings will commence in the county court. Magnus Group currently has 18 different letters for different vehicles entering the land in Felixstowe since 19 September, each notice containing a charge of £250 per incident.

The photographic evidence is not clear as to where the vehicles have been photographed. Indeed, many of them appear to be simply vehicles travelling on a tarmac road. Magnus Group has, at present, a number of fines totalling almost £6,000. Some of its vehicle fines have accrued further charges—some total £337.50 per fine and one is for £421.50. Magnus Group vehicles have been forcibly blocked by Proserve; while blocked, Proserve has taken photographs of the vehicle and used the photographs to subsequently issue fines. I am sure the Minister agrees that that is far from ethical practice and is certainly not desirable in the UK’s leading container port.

I am listening with interest to my hon. Friend’s speech. I know these roads and estates as I used to be a surveyor practising in that area, and the roads are not in the best order. Does my hon. Friend agree that this sort of practice, and the poor estate management in not keeping these roads up to standard, is undermining Felixstowe’s position as a premier container port in the UK?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I shall give the House one more example on exactly that point. The issue for the Government to consider is that the actions of Proserve and companies like it are not isolated to Felixstowe. This is occurring throughout the United Kingdom. Specifically in Felixstowe, however, we know that jobs are reliant not only on the port and that many other jobs in Suffolk are linked through the haulage industry. As we look towards Brexit, the position of Felixstowe as the UK’s premier container port and the importance of Britain’s trade and its exporting and importing capacity is something that the Government should take into account. The behaviour of Proserve is undermining the competitiveness of Felixstowe, and it is potentially putting jobs at risk in Suffolk and elsewhere in the UK that are linked to the port. This is something that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing forward this debate. He is right to say that these things are happening not only in Felixstowe; they are happening elsewhere as well, and clearly no one is safe. Does he agree that excessive private parking enforcement carried out with no sensitivity can cause great distress in what can already be distressing circumstances? One of my constituents was hounded by a private parking company for a fine that was incurred when she was parked at a commercial harbour in Northern Ireland. She had had a heart attack and was taken away by ambulance, so she could not move her car. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that example and others like it show why people and companies get annoyed and angry? These private parking enforcement companies should not be a law unto themselves. They need to be brought under the control of legislation and the rule of law.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We know from the behaviour of Proserve and from the example that he has just raised that these companies are often operating without any legal framework, and that there is no proper appeals process available to the victims of those companies. I have been talking about the commercial environment, but I believe that he was talking more from a private citizen’s perspective. However, the examples are certainly comparable. This is borne out even further by my next example.

Bartrums is a large haulage company in Eye, in the north of Suffolk. Andrew Watton, its chief executive officer, has told me:

“For a number of years, Bartrums haulage have been dogged by over-zealous parking enforcement to the point of almost extortion”—

by Proserve in Felixstowe.

“This enforcement company is not part of any parking enforcement association and therefore has no appeals process to the fines for which they impose. The fines and charges are excessive and when you complain or challenge the penalty via Bidwell’s”—

the managing agents—

“you are then charged an additional management fee. Hauliers who fail to make payment of the fine imposed are then banned from site (an area which makes up a substantial proportion of Felixstowe Port). The fines are imposed for stopping anywhere on the carriageway across the controlled area. The fines are in the region of £250…This is under the offence of trespass. Many hauliers across the UK are victim to this sharp practice and growing in number. We have now got to the point of taking group action against Trinity College directly, as previous legal actions against Proserve have failed. This is a restrictive practice, and some select local hauliers in the local area are exempt from these fines, which is anti-competitive.”

As I mentioned earlier, companies may be exempted from these fines because they pay Proserve a fee in order to be given better treatment. That does not sound like a fair or ethical way of running a parking enforcement company in a port the size of Felixstowe. It sounds like extortion, because if the hauliers do not pay, they get fined. I hope that the Minister will be able to look into this.

Andrew Watton continued:

“Trinity are obliged to look at mitigating these charges, which they have failed to do.”

Trinity College’s failure to engage with the process throughout has been woeful.

I want to give one last example. FTS Hatswell Ltd tells me:

“Proserve is a company who work on behalf of the landowners at Trinity Distribution Park…They are issuing trespass notices and heavy fines even if you stop to ask for directions. Last week I got a call from another Haulier whose driver stopped as he had hit something lying in the road”.

Yet he still got a fine and a trespass notice. The company continued:

“FTS Hatswell Limited are currently banned from both sites”

that Proserve runs,

“and even the BP garage by the estate. They are not able to obtain owner details from the DVLA as they don’t belong to a parking enforcement body.”

The challenge for the Minister is to meet the three tests that I have set out. Clearly, a parking enforcement company is behaving unethically and affecting hauliers all over the UK. It affects the productivity and functioning of Felixstowe port, which is the biggest container port in the country. I know that the Government will want to address that, given the looming decisions on Brexit and the importance of overseas trade.

Setting aside the inertia and disappointing behaviour of Trinity College and its agents, Bidwells, there are many concerns that need to be addressed. First, the Government need to ensure that all commercial car parking companies are properly regulated and signed up to a trade body and an appeals regulator, who can consider their actions fairly and ensure fairness and transparency in the appeals process. Secondly, we need to ensure that Suffolk Trading Standards is supported to take appropriate action against Proserve, and Bidwells and Trinity College. Thirdly, we should investigate setting up a proper regulatory system for commercial parking enforcement to support the haulage industry and prevent the unethical and anti-competitive behaviour of companies such as Proserve.

I look forward to the Minister’s response and thank her for taking the time to listen to the points I have raised on behalf of the haulage industry in Suffolk and elsewhere.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) on securing this debate on private parking enforcement at commercial ports and trading estates. I am pleased to respond to a debate on a subject that is clearly important to my hon. Friend, his constituents and hauliers. Although there are no major commercial ports in North Ipswich and Central Suffolk, his constituency is close to that great hub of maritime activity and excellence on the Harwich Haven waterway.

That includes one of the country’s largest and most important ports at Felixstowe, as well as other significant commercial ports at Harwich International and the port of Ipswich. Together, those ports deal with some 11% of total freight tonnage handled by English ports— 36 million tonnes in 2017. They have a significant impact on the local economy as a source of employment and business activity. I am sure that I do not have to convince my hon. Friend and other Members of the economic importance of our ports to our country. They make a massive contribution to our economy and, to put it simply, are the reason why we can thrive as a trading nation. Our ports are our main gateway to the world, handling 95% of all imports and exports, employing 24,000 people and boosting our economy by £5.4 billion a year.

As Minister for maritime, I see the story behind those statistics every day and the enterprise, investment, and commitment to customers that make Britain’s ports among the best in the world. I also had the opportunity in May to visit a number of our ports, including Felixstowe, and saw first hand the fundamental role they play.

The scale of the operations at Felixstowe is impressive. The port handles the largest container vessels in the world, some 400 metres long each and holding some 18,000 twenty-foot equivalent unit—or TEU—containers, with 33 cranes to load and unload them. Felixstowe handles some 4 million TEU containers each year. Our other large container ports, including at London Gateway and Southampton, are just as impressive.

Our ports operate on a commercial basis in a competitive environment, including with ports on the continent. They have an impressive record of investment in new facilities, investing hundreds of millions of pounds in new facilities over the past 10 years, with further planned for the future. As my hon. Friend mentioned, their importance will grow as we leave the EU and start to make the most of the new global trading opportunities it brings.

As a consequence of their success, our major commercial ports generate significant volumes of road traffic moving freight to and from ports, with goods for export travelling to our ports and imported goods being taken to their destinations inland, such as warehouses, distribution centres and factories. Our ports are a key link in the supply chains of our economy. That is particularly the case at ports specialising in shipping containers, such as Felixstowe, London Gateway and Southampton, as well as larger roll-on roll-off ferry ports including Dover and Harwich International.

In most cases, the aim is for a vehicle to spend as little time as possible at the port, often arriving at a set time to pick up or deposit a container before departing shortly afterwards, or arriving at a port to catch a ferry service with as little time as possible spent at the port. The provision of parking for vehicles is not therefore that relevant to such ports. The priority is to ensure that traffic is kept moving smoothly through the port. However, some ports will provide more parking facilities, such as for use by departing cruise passengers. For other mainly smaller ports, car parking for tourists and other visitors can provide an important source of revenue, particularly over the summer season.

Each port is responsible for managing its own car parking arrangements. Some ports may use their statutory powers under harbour byelaws to do that, particularly where parking control is needed to ensure the safe and effective operation of the harbour. Others may use an approach involving private parking contractors.

Whatever the arrangements, they seem to work effectively. My Department receives very little correspondence from members of the public or businesses with concerns about parking arrangements at our ports, although that is not in any way to discount the concerns of my hon. Friend’s constituents.

I understand that the Minister is reading from a pre-prepared speech, but will she acknowledge that I represent the views of more than 30 haulage companies that have a problem with how commercial parking enforcement is being run at Felixstowe port by Proserve? It is damaging their competitiveness and it is potentially costing jobs. Proserve’s unethical behaviour needs to be addressed.

I was just about to come on to that. It is important that we understand any potential damage to our haulage industry, which is key to getting freight in and out of our country and to ensuring our ports thrive now and in the future.

If any individual or business has concerns about parking arrangements at ports, those concerns are always best addressed directly to the ports themselves—I understand that my hon. Friend is frustrated by the lack of interaction from the port and the operating company—and it is for the contractor to consider and quickly resolve those concerns.

My hon. Friend’s constituents have raised concerns about the way in which one particular private parking enforcement company has been operating at a distribution facility at Felixstowe. I understand that the facility is not part of the port itself but is close to it. He has written to the site’s owners raising his constituents’ concerns, to which I hope and expect he will get a satisfactory response. Although I would not wish to comment on the specifics of that particular case, improving the way the private parking sector works is an important issue for the Government.

The private parking industry is currently self-regulating. However, like my hon. Friend, we have concerns about the practices of some private parking companies. That is why the Government are pleased to support the Parking (Code of Practice) Bill, a private Member’s Bill tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight). The Bill passed its remaining stages in the House of Commons on 23 November, and it was introduced in the other place on 26 November.

The Bill seeks to create a single code of practice that is applicable to every private parking operator, rather than the current position in which each parking association has a different code of practice and different standards to which it holds its members. By providing a single code of practice, the Bill aims to create clarity and consistency across the industry for both parking operators and motorists. It also aims to raise standards by incorporating best practice as standard across the industry.

I welcome the amendment made on Report, which will allow a single appeals body to be appointed. That is key to some of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend, and it will create a straightforward process for motorists who have received a private parking ticket to follow to appeal.

My hon. Friend raised a number of concerns—one was about penalties. I will be taking that back to my Department so that the roads Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), ensures that my hon. Friend gets a robust response. Once again, my hon. Friend highlighted the importance of the logistics industry, and we cannot have it feeling that it is being particularly targeted because of the way it conducts business.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) has joined us in the Chamber. She is already across these issues, and I will make sure that my Department is working closely with hers to ensure that both hauliers and local constituency Members of Parliament are represented appropriately. I hope that my response has assured my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich that the Government are well aware of the issue of parking at commercial ports and trading estates, both in my Department and in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which is also involved in enforcement. I will make sure that the record of today’s debate is passed to the appropriate Minister so that they can respond to my hon. Friend, too. We must not forget that the parking code of practice, when it becomes law, should help to address a number of the concerns the Government have about how the current systems works. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue this evening, but I am sure that his constituents will welcome the proposed Bill. I will ensure that the appropriate Ministers respond further on the issues relating to penalties that he raised.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.