Food bank users were pursued for parking charges of up to £170 and threatened with court action after an enforcement company took over management of a community centre car park in Sunderland.
Clients and volunteers at the Youth Almighty Project (Yap), which runs a food bank and community services, were hit with parking charge notices (PCNs) for using the charity’s free car park after the firm contracted to manage the site was taken over by an Australian multinational called Smart Parking.
“They have begun issuing £100 tickets (reduced to £60 if paid within 14 days) to anyone that uses the car park, including me and my staff, even though we own the site,” Phil Tye, the Yap chair, said.
“Even after we’ve contested them, people are receiving letters from a debt collection agency demanding £170 and threatening legal action if they don’t pay within seven days.”
It was only after Guardian Money contacted Smart Parking that the charges were cancelled.
Parking enforcement companies patrol privately owned car parks on behalf of landlords to crack down on drivers who trespass, overstay or fail to pay. Typically, the firms receive the income from PCNs, which can be up to £100 each, rather than payments from the landlord.
The sector has been criticised for disproportionate charges for minor infringements of parking rules and in February, the government announced plans to cap most private parking charges at £50. It will also force firms to allow drivers a 10-minute grace period before issuing a PCN.
A new code of practice will make it easier for drivers to challenge tickets if there are mitigating circumstances and restrict fees levied by debt collection agents.
At the time the changes were announced the minister for levelling up, Neil O’Brien, said private firms were issuing roughly 22,000 parking tickets a day, and often charged “unreasonable fees”.
Yap took on Enterprise Parking Solutions in 2020 to stop unauthorised drivers using its car park.
Permitted vehicles belonging to staff and customers were registered on a white list and any PCNS issued to them were routinely cancelled, according to Tye.
However last August, Enterprise and its 68 sites was acquired by Smart Parking, which manages car parks for retail parks and supermarket chains across the UK.
Tye said Yap did not know about the takeover until an engineer turned up and change over some equipment.
“Since then, instead of logging authorised vehicles on a white list, we have to email the details, but the emails are not acted on and Smart Parking is failing to cancel erroneously issued PCNs,” he added.
The charitysaid it did not receive a new contract from Smart Parking, which has refused to release it from the three-year agreement signed with Enterprise.
When Tye demanded Smart Parking withdraw from the site, he received a letter from the firm’s lawyers threatening court proceedings to recover “significant” lost profits and legal costs.
“A multimillion-pound global company is making profits from hungry families,” Tye said. “How can this be legal?”
The benefit of a contract can lawfully be transferred to a new company without the agreement of the client under certain circumstances, according to Emma Marshall, a senior associate in the commercial dispute resolution practice at the law firm Browne Jacobson.
“It depends on whether the contract provided for what would happen on a change in the ownership of the company’s assets and whether the old owner complied with any conditions in the contract,” she said.
Yap’s contract with Enterprise states that the benefit – the income stream – can be assigned to a third party.
Smart Parking cancelled 19 PCNs issued to volunteers and users within 24 hours of Guardian Money’s intervention.
It has since agreed to refund other drivers who claim they were incorrectly charged. It declined to explain why it had not previously responded to evidence the PCNs had been incorrectly issued.
A spokesperson said: “Following an exchange of communications we have spoken to Mr Tye and after a good meeting we have agreed a strategy for moving forward. We very much look forward to working together into the future.”