Always searching for somewhere to park: some ruminations on cows, clamps and immobilizing motor vehicles

“The way humans hunt for parking and the way animals hunt for food are not as different as you might think”  Tom Vanderbilt

So, I step out of the supermarket and look across at a familiar scene: the dark bunker-like edifice of the local Boots store’s loading bay. But today I have illicit car parking on my mind so the large ‘No Parking’ sign and elderly perimeter chain catch my eye. That will do nicely. I position myself to take a picture. It starts to rain, but I am resolute. This side road is quiet; click – photo one achieved.

But then a flurry of cars mess up my view, and suddenly two cars in turn glide off road into this prohibited zone. Each driver looks slightly surprised at the other’s like-mindedness, but in an unspoken balletic dance they both park up in this space. One car leaves almost immediately. But the red car stays. Slightly miffed I decide to try and freak the driver out by carrying on snapping. We exchange frosty glances as he and his wife (both retired and not all looking like they have any occupational association with Boots or its logistics) step out of their shiny red sports car and set off for their shopping spree, no-doubt regaining smug composure as they walk off:

We are not weak.

We know where to park.

We’re brave enough to ignore that sign.

Experience tells us that nothing happens if you park here.

Thinking about parking

According to Ben-Joseph (2012) vehicles are immobile for 95% of their working lives, they have to occupy a static point in space during such states of ‘rest’. Parking is a fundamental necessity in the urbanised world, and it provokes its own grammar of reading the streetscape – the 100 yard stare of the driver, hoping to spot a place to park-up before he has already driven past it. This need-to-park shapes how we design, manage and interact with our urban realm. As Paul Groth has put it, rather grandly:

“The ancient Egyptians organized their life and their gods in reference to the life-giving Nile. Colonial New Englanders organized their village life around the axis mundi of the meetinghouse, the place that manifested their connection to the cosmos. Although it happens just below the level of awareness, the parking space generates the most significant sense of personal and social place in the cosmos for today’s urban Americans; it is their axis mundis” (quoted in Ben-Joseph, 2012: 3).

In 1990 I stood in the basement of a Barcelona bookshop killing time. Whilst most of the books there were in Spanish, one caught my eye. The title was simple, a single English word: Parking.  I’ve never seen the book since. In my mind’s eye I see it as filled with elegant three-colour (black, white and red) stylized diagrams of parking manoeuvres, each page an instructional yet beautiful diagrammatic  depiction of a vehicular manoeuvre. On balance, I think it was probably an art book, but maybe it was an instructional manual, I really don’t know. It hovered indeterminately between the two. Whatever words were written there were in Spanish, so they didn’t help me understand the context of this book.

In a mild way that book haunts me to this day. A taxonomy of vehicular dance, a mapping of the possible ways in which a car can move in relation to other obstacles (many of which where in the book – as in life – other cars). There’s a great game – Rush Hour – that explores this, a puzzle in which a packed congregation of vehicles must be unjammed by the trial and error sliding of cars and lorries until a way can be found to unlock the gridlock.

The book left me with a feeling for the urban tessellation involved in finding (and slotting into) a parking space. That feeling that everywhere is almost full up, a clock ticking, time and space running out. That act of driving around looking for somewhere geometrically viable to park in, yet with an additional essential evaluative layer within the search algorythm: consideration of where it is permissible to park. Here’s where I return to the domain of mundane law, and it’s shaping role, within spatiality and the normative dimension of everyday life.

Let’s momentarily go back to the rear of the Boots store. The loading bay and its sign sit there passively, come rain or shine, cars coming and going – a testimony to the approximateness of such mundane, everyday declarations of territory and the city’s tantalisingly prohibited but parkable forecourts, bays and verges. As the red car shows, if you want to stop people parking you have to do something more than signage, and the available options are about to change.

On the 1st October 2012 it becomes a criminal offence in England to clamp or otherwise immobilise a vehicle because it is parked without the landowner’s permission on private land. This provision is a small portion of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 which primarily deals with the more dramatic civil liberties issues of biometrics, the regulation of CCTV and powers of entry to land. Here I want to think a little about parking, clamping and the mundane interactions of law and the technology of vehicular immobilization. Along the way I will also have something to say about ancient laws on seizing straying cows.

Thinking about clamping

In 1991, very early in my career as an apprentice lawyer, I was asked to research the legality of vehicle clamping for a client, a local University. As I looked into it I found that the legal research trail was pointing towards medieval legal rulings about rights to seize and retain livestock that had strayed onto your land, the ancient rule of distress damage feasant. That rule was a pre-industrial one, and as regards seizure of livestock it was abrogated in 1971 by the Animals Act. But that Act said nothing about the curbing or abolition of the rule as it had come to be applied to non-animals in subsequent cases. By the reign of Charles I it had started to be applied to inanimate objects, and in 1853 it had been successfully invoked to impound a railway locomotive that had trespassed onto a competitor’s line. I relished this chance to read about ancient cases of bovine ransom, and train confiscation.

At the time of my research there was no regulation of the newly emergent ‘industry’ of vehicle clamping and release fees, and in the intervening 20 odd years there few cases have reached the senior courts to specifically develop this area of law and portray it in the modern way (with cars) rather than the ancient one (with cows). But my legal training told me that cows and cars can, at an appropriate level of generalisation, be treated as the same thing. The search for answers to legal research questions often requires this descent into the realm of analogy.

Whilst a mundane – everyday – issue, clamping proved to be an emotive one over the last two decades. In the handful of cases in which its legality was tested the courts equivocated – they didn’t like the idea that private landowners, or their clamping contractors, could set their own penalties, but they accepted that someone parking on private land in an area where a notice clearly indicated that no permission to park there was given, amounted to an agreement – a contractual acceptance of the fate that would befall you if you proceeded to park there.

Attempts were made to shave off the exploitative extremities – introduction of codes of practice, formation of a clamping association and a training certificate (a similar trajectory to the ‘professionalisation’ of bouncers (night club doormen)). But the base question remained – was clamping (and charging of a ‘release fee’) lawful, and if it was should it be outlawed?

Well, as culmination of a cross-party trend, the 2012 Act, finally, sees that question answered. Clamping or towing away is now prohibited.

Thinking around barriers

But (there’s always a but) this prohibition leaves open other ways of achieving immobilization and defence of private parkable spaces. There is nothing in the new law to stop landowners introducing barriers – pole gates, chains, gates or other ways of closing a space to access or egress and as a result trapping the trespassing car inside. Provided the barrier was present at the site when the unauthorised parking occurred (even if not deployed to prevent entry – i.e. raised or not fully chained across) that will be regarded as a lawful restriction of the vehicle’s movement if those barrier devices are later moved into a ‘closed’ position. A removal fee could then still be charged, and such a charge would still be upheld by the courts provided it was shown to be a genuine measure of the cost of attending and opening the barrier, rather than a penalty aimed at punishing the unauthorised parker.

Wheel clamping was an innovation of the 1990s. Prior to that decade unauthorised parking spaces were controlled by chains, bollards or pole-barriers. But these were largely plot-wide controls. The whole loading bay (in my example) would either have to be open or closed to access at any single point in time. The clamp enabled a selective, more targeted control of territory – and a strategy which could be more readily commercially incentivised and outsourced. For the first time, by these means, individual cars could be targeted. The plot could be left physically open to access (e.g. for lorries arriving there throughout the day), and the rules of use could become more differentiated. And all of this was now achievable without the need for a permanently resident parking attendant (anyone remember their little huts and ex-colonial seeming uniforms?). Instead of a simple binary of closed/open-to-access, controls over duration of stay, type of vehicle and permit-based parking could all be enforced through immobilization against individual cars without affecting all other users of that plot, or entailing constant human oversight.

The banning of clamping and towing will see the return of older technologies of parking control – access barriers, bollards and chains (but probably not resident parking attendants). So – get ready – here come the boom days for the barrier designers and suppliers and the men driving round in vans, opening up barriers after payment of their release fee. The clamp may be dead, but vehicle immobilization will evolve via a new wave of urban plot re-enclosure.

Watch this space (but don’t park in it).

Ben-Joseph, E. (2012) Rethinking a lot – the design and culture of parking, MIT Press: Massachusetts


About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

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