Food bank users have been sued for parking charges of up to £170 and threatened with legal action after a law enforcement company took over management of a community center car park in Sunderland.
Clients and volunteers of the Almighty Youth Project (Yap), which runs a food bank and community services, received parking charge notices (PCNs) for using the charity’s free parking lot after the company running the site was taken over by an Australian multinational called Smart Parking.
“They have started issuing £100 tickets (reduced to £60 if paid within 14 days) to anyone using the car park, including me and my staff, even though we own the site,” said said Phil Tye, president of Yap.
“Even after we challenge them, people are getting 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 waived.
Parking enforcement companies patrol private parking lots on behalf of owners to crack down on drivers who break in, overstay or fail to pay. Typically, businesses receive income from PCNs, which can be up to £100 each, rather than payments from the owner.
The sector has come under fire for disproportionate charges for minor breaches of parking rules and in February the government announced plans to cap most private parking charges at £50. It will also require companies to give drivers a 10-minute grace period before issuing a PCN.
A new code of conduct will make it easier for drivers to challenge tickets if there are extenuating circumstances and will limit the fees collected by debt collectors.
At the time the changes were announced, the minister responsible for the upgrade, Neil O’Brien, said private companies were issuing around 22,000 parking tickets a day and often charging “unreasonable fees”.
Yap used Enterprise Parking Solutions in 2020 to prevent unauthorized drivers from using its parking lot.
Authorized vehicles belonging to staff and customers were whitelisted and any PCNS issued to them were routinely cancelled, according to Tye.
However, last August Enterprise and its 68 sites were acquired by Smart Parking, which manages car parks for retail parks and supermarket chains across the UK.
Tye said Yap was unaware of the takeover until an engineer showed up and changed some equipment.
“Since then, instead of whitelisting authorized vehicles, we have to email the details, but the emails are not processed and Smart Parking fails to override PCNs issued in error” , he added.
The charity said it had not received a new contract from Smart Parking, which refused to release it from the three-year agreement signed with Enterprise.
When Tye asked Smart Parking to withdraw from the site, he received a letter from the company’s lawyers threatening him with legal action to recover “significant” lost profits and legal costs.
“A multi-million pound global business is making money from starving families,” Tye said. “How can this be legal?”
The benefit of a contract can legally be transferred to a new company without the client’s consent in certain circumstances, according to Emma Marshall, senior associate at law firm Browne Jacobson.
“It depends on whether the contract provided for what would happen if there was a change in ownership of the assets of the business and whether the previous owner complied with the terms of the contract,” she said.
Yap’s contract with Enterprise stipulates that the benefit – the revenue stream – can be allocated to a third party.
Smart Parking canceled 19 PCNs issued to volunteers and users within 24 hours of Guardian Money’s intervention.
He has since agreed to reimburse other drivers who claim they were wrongly charged. He declined to explain why he had not previously responded to evidence that the PCNs had been issued incorrectly.
A spokesperson said: “Following an exchange of communications, we spoke to Mr Tye and after a good meeting we agreed on a strategy moving forward. We are very much looking forward to working together in the future.