Andrew Gimson

Let’s hear it for traffic wardens

They are among the most hated people in urban Britain and – because many of them are from west Africa – often the victims of racial abuse. But, says Andrew Gimson, without their bravery and dedication our civilisation might collapse

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They are among the most hated people in urban Britain and – because many of them are from west Africa – often the victims of racial abuse. But, says Andrew Gimson, without their bravery and dedication our civilisation might collapse

Get a proper job, get a life, sod off back to Africa, black monkey, African prick, storm trooper, German scum. These are among the many insults thrown at parking wardens as they go about their daily work. The jibes about Africa reflect the curious fact that in London about 60 per cent of traffic wardens are from west Africa, while the jibes about Germany reflect the German ownership of Apcoa, one of the main companies in the parking business. The hatred and contempt which enforcers of parking regulations inspire among motorists would be hard to exaggerate, and they have also received a very bad press, with a number of my more intrepid colleagues going undercover as trainee wardens and filing horrific tales of unscrupulous wardens picking on innocent motorists.

So it is with a certain sense of professional inadequacy that I find myself obliged to report that traffic wardens are human beings. The Nigerian and Ghanaian wardens whom I interviewed are delightful people, staunch and good-humoured enough to withstand the torrent of physical threats and racial and other abuse to which they are subjected. They tend to be educated far above the level one would expect in a traffic warden. Many of them are university graduates who find that the qualifications and professional experience they have acquired in west Africa are considered worthless by employers in London. They need to start earning money as quickly as possible, so in many cases they take a first full-time job as a traffic warden, in which role if one is reasonably diligent and reliable one can earn £16,000 to £18,000 a year.

In this article the words 'traffic warden' are used to signify people more accurately known as 'parking attendants', the feeble term used to describe the on-street employees of the private parking firms which started tendering for business from local councils in 1991. In that year parking offences were decriminalised under the Road Traffic Act, which meant that enforcement no longer had to be exclusively in the hands of the police, and of traffic wardens employed by the police.

In Peckham in the south London borough of Southwark I met four traffic wardens from west Africa employed by Apcoa, which has ten contracts with London councils. One of the wardens, a 32-year-old Nigerian who is married to a British-born wife, came to London in 1998 after completing a masters degree in public administration and applied to join the Metropolitan Police, but found that while they wanted to know what he had been doing for the last 15 years, they were unwilling to check his Nigerian references. His lack of any record of full-time employment in Britain meant he could not join the Met, so he became a traffic warden instead. He has risen to the rank of supervisor, which means he supervises eight other wardens while also issuing tickets himself, and he looks a happy man. He said two great advantages of the work were prompt payment of wages – 'by Friday the money's in the account' – and direct access to his boss.

The Nigerian went on: 'What I've noticed – I'm sorry to say this – is that the majority of motorists in this country are ignorant about the existing parking laws. Most of the time they don't know why they've got a ticket. Some of them don't even know the difference between the pavement and the kerb.'

It struck me that the Nigerian might be underestimating the capacity of British motorists to pretend to be more ignorant than they really are. But he takes their protestations at face value and believes his task is to 'educate' them. He reckons 'the organisations that run parking are not doing enough to educate the public' and became enthusiastic at the idea that this article might help in that respect, though I suggested that a film about life as a traffic warden made by some enterprising television journalist might be of more value. I asked him if he had been physically threatened, to which he replied: 'Yes, some of them, they threaten you, then you see them the next day, you give them a ticket. After a time they conform.'

On being asked if he suffered racial abuse, he said: 'It's like my daily bread. Every day. Like this,' and to the laughter of his colleagues he moved his hand up and down in an obscene gesture. 'It makes no meaning to us,' he said. 'In Nigeria if you do this to someone they think you're mad.'

The notion began to dawn on me that these west Africans are, in effect, on a civilising mission to our shores. The police who rejected my Nigerian friend have also rejected the practice of walking the beat. During the day, you are far more likely, in London at least, to see a traffic warden patrolling the streets on foot than a police officer. These wardens place their courage, education and sense of duty and discipline at our disposal. One could imagine them making excellent soldiers or policemen. Armed only with radios, with which they can summon help if needed, they go forth to bring a degree of order to the urban jungle, helping to keep open the routes which ambulances and fire engines and also our motorised police will need to use in an emergency. The wardens may bring a tiresome pedantry to the task of enforcing the parking rules, but by doing so it can be said in their defence that they are adopting the fashionable approach known as 'zero tolerance'. As so often in London, Africans have taken on essential work which few of the indigenous whites are any longer prepared to contemplate doing.

A second parking warden, a man in his forties who has a degree in biomedical science and was a science teacher in Ghana before coming here, had been attacked only the day before we met. 'There was this lady parking in a loading bay. This lady, she slapped me in the face with the ticket. She wouldn't let me explain. She was so hysterical, flailing at me, she was still wailing and shouting and screaming, behaving very hysterically. I tried to keep my distance, I decided to go and make a report to the police, maybe start a civil case, but on the way I had second thoughts, I decided it's part of the job.'

The woman's behaviour was particularly insulting because she was young enough to be his daughter and of Nigerian descent, and as the warden pointed out, 'in an African setting, a woman can't slap me'. The wardens said the level of abuse they receive from whites in Peckham 'is insignificant compared to the abuse we receive from fellow Africans.'

It has been estimated that two serious attacks, meaning hospital treatment is required, take place each day on traffic wardens in London. In Kensington and Chelsea a motorist who attacked a parking warden has recently been sentenced to a 180-day community punishment order. Tremendous ructions can take place at car pounds, where in central London it costs £200 to retrieve your vehicle, for many people an almost impossible amount of money. Many just hand over the keys to the vehicle instead, but some try to liberate their vehicles without paying, while others say they want to get something from the car and then smash it up so that it will be worthless. But most of the cars abandoned in car pounds are worthless anyway.

Not all members of the public are abusive: a lady in Knightsbridge apologised for having parked in the wrong place and said in explanation: 'I'm so sorry, I've been in Harvey Nichols and you know what that's like.' In Southwark a man in a suit came to the help of a traffic warden and told the motorist who was causing difficulties: 'There's no point arguing with this man. He's got more power than the Prime Minister.'

The parking wardens are used to being regarded as scum – 'they do not see you as an intelligent person, they think you are a drop-out' – but added: 'As soon as you come out of the uniform you can be accepted.' One of them related how a girl who gave him a lift when he was not in uniform told him on learning what he did: 'You look too nice to be a traffic warden.'

Many Africans take a job as a traffic warden while studying to gain the qualifications they need to get going in some other line of work. A warden from Ghana who was already a qualified environmental health officer when he arrived in London said he has just finished qualifying here as a public health officer. But a radiographer from Ghana said he had abandoned all thought of working for the National Health Service and was going to make a career as a traffic warden.

An aggrieved motorist who has read this far might say: very well, the traffic wardens may not all be quite as horrible as I had imagined, though I have come across some who were less charming than the paragons you present here. But what of the companies which employ them? To get some idea of what kind of people run Apcoa, I went to the company's unpretentious offices in Brixton to talk to two members of its senior management, Lysette Grosvenor and Katy Park. Neither of them is from Africa, though Africans are rising to more and more senior levels.

Ms Grosvenor, who is in charge of Apcoa's 900 on-street staff, struck me as a tough cookie. I asked her how she came into the parking industry and she said: 'I was a certificated bailiff – I worked for a bailiff company that enforced warrants – I've gone in through windows at 5.30 in the morning. Clamped wheels at 5.30 in the morning. Made people pay for their sins.'

I asked her if she had felt frightened going in through people's windows, to which she replied: 'No. Because, I'm sorry, there are people who just think they can do anything and get away with it. You know, you go somewhere, and quiet, affluent, comfortable-off people think they can park where they want whenever they like and they don't think it'll catch up with them. OK, so you find some business people who've got 20 tickets, 30 tickets, 50 tickets. When the bailiffs come in then they realise, you know, the parking attendant has done his job, the back office have done their job, they've never, ever paid, it's gone right through the system, at the end of the day the local authority can employ bailiffs to enforce, so if you didn't pay your ticket and you didn't move house at some point a bailiff will knock on your door and say I have a warrant of execution, pay the fine, pay the court fine, pay my costs, my time, my vehicle, my attending, me levying distress on you, I'm coming in your house, I'll take your car and your tV and that'll clear your debt, sir.'

This surely constitutes a strong defence of what traffic wardens do. For the truth is that some motorists, including some affluent, middle-class motorists, are monstrously and outrageously arrogant. They think they can park wherever they like, regardless of any inconvenience they cause to other people, and they need someone as tough as Ms Grosvenor to tell them they can't.

But what of the frequent charge that traffic wardens are over-zealous and issue many tickets to drivers who have not actually broken the rules? Ms Grosvenor was not going to give an inch: 'Our employees carry out to the letter the instructions we are given by the council. We have no power to be lenient or to say "Oh, you're two minutes late, we'll let you off", because we would be defrauding the council of funds. They could dismiss us as their contractor for flouting their instructions. They rely on an income which is ploughed back into parking-related services, so that income is budgeted for and is ring-fenced.' Any motorist who considers he has been unfairly treated can appeal first to the council and then to an independent tribunal.

Ms Grosvenor said she had a parking warden in Camden who had lost an eye after being attacked by a member of the public. Ms Park, who taught for seven and a half years at a sixth-form college in south London and is in charge of training at Apcoa, said: 'I think a lot of the time the press whip up this hatred and it results in assaults on our staff.'

I suggested, in the manner of a rather wet clergyman, that once car drivers, instead of concentrating on their own sense of victimhood, realised how tough life is for traffic wardens, they might feel sorry for them, but Ms Grosvenor was having none of it: 'We think they'd laugh and go ha, ha, good.'

The truth is that we the public tend to demand strict law enforcement until it impinges on our own preferred forms of law-breaking, whereupon we demand to be let off. The Africans who patrol the streets of London are not allowed to let us off, so naturally they are unpopular. Like the Romans, they are struggling to bring the blessings of order and civilisation to our barbarian shores. Thank God they have come.