'˜We're succeeding in stopping the misuse of blue badges'

AS THE city council comes to a close on a record-breaking year of tackling blue badge fraud, reporter TOM COTTERILL joins Portsmouth's parking enforcement team on their final operation of the year to find out more about the men and women tackling the cheats on the streets.

Thursday, 28th December 2017, 5:37 am
Investigations officer for Portsmouth City Council Steve Goodall Picture: Malcolm Wells (171208-0553)

A BITTERLY cold wind whipped through Commercial Road as shoppers, wrapped up in scarves and thick coats, scurried from store to store seeking shelter from the icy chill.

I was walking with Stephen Goodall, parking investigations officer at Portsmouth City Council, to a well-known hunting ground for his team seeking out blue badge fraudsters.

‘A while ago we were on Parking Wars,’ he tells me as he strides past G&S Jewellers towards the disabled parking spaces in Landport View, by the Cascades car park.

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‘This area is a prime target for us. I caught this woman who was illegally parking here a few days after the show went on the TV.

‘She said to me: “I recognise you, you’ve been on tele, right? You were on Parking Wars?”.

‘I couldn’t believe it, she had watched me catching people just like her in this very space a few nights before. And yet she still wanted to take the risk.’

And within a few minutes of me being with Stephen on the operation, he had identified a blue badge illegally being used by a pensioner who claimed to have lost it several months before.

He was minutes away from calling in a team of vehicle removal specialists from Boarhunt, after almost waiting the 30-minute time period, when the owner came back saving her car – but picking up a penalty charge notice instead.

The woman had been using the badge she had cancelled in the summer instead of the new one sent through by the council to replace it.

Although potentially an honest mistake, Stephen warns me that there are more unscrupulous characters out there that decide the ‘play the system’ falsely claiming their original blue badge had been stolen to get another one.

It’s something that Stephen said undermines the system, meaning spaces were being taken away from those who genuinely need them – people like Brenda Weaver.

The 67-year-old, of Buckland, is going through breast cancer treatment which has battered her lungs; I met her as she parked in Landport View.

She has also survived two heart attacks and is battling against crippling arthritis which affects her ability to walk.

Her conditions means she needs to have a blue badge when she goes shopping in the city centre.

‘People shouldn’t be parking in disabled spaces illegally because it has a huge impact on people like me,’ she tells me after happily showing her legitimate blue badge to Stephen.

‘I’m getting over cancer and the radiotherapy damaged my right lung so I have only got one lung working properly.

‘It affects me a lot when somebody who doesn’t need to park in a disabled does and I then can’t.

‘The spaces are closer to the shops and it means I don’t have to walk so far. They’re vital.’

She says she welcomes the city council’s clampdown on blue badge fraud, the latest operation of which saw dozens of civil parking enforcement officers hitting the streets.

‘I am pleased the council is taking action,’ she tells me. ‘The amount of people they are catching now using illegal uses somebody else’s badge is shocking.’

My day began at a team briefing on the fifth floor of the Civic Offices in Guildhall Square.

Outlining the operation was supervisor Paul Avery and Stephen.

They tell the team of officers – men and women of all ages and backgrounds – about where they will be patrolling during the day-long operation.

For the council, tackling blue badge fraud was only one prong of the mission.

The team was spread out across the city on the hunt for fraudsters, abandoned vehicles, tax-dodgers and persistent penalty charge evaders.

Leaving the building I joined Paul, who had a radio headset buzzing away in his ear, receiving intelligence and updates on the operation from his squad.

He joined the team in 2001 as a parking attendant after being made redundant from IBM in Havant. But for Paul, the job upheaval was a blessing in disguise as it led him his true calling.

Born and bred in Portsmouth, he says he has loved the challenge of the job and the change of the years, with more power being given to civil enforcement officers and better tech helping them to enforce the rules.

But he says: ‘Our number one priority is road safety. Everything we do within our enforcement team is a drive towards road safety and enhancing this.

‘If we didn’t have enforcement and the possibility of getting a penalty charge notice, people would park appallingly.

‘We enforce because we should – not because we can. I have got no doubt that if we didn’t have enforcement here we would have chaos.’

He adds: ‘Having us on the street does give the public a warm feeling.’

During my time with Paul, I see an abandoned grey Ford Mondeo, illegally parked in a residents’ parking bay, being removed.

It takes minutes to hook the car up to a flatbed truck, after having waited the statutory amount of time before doing so.

While there, Paul gets a surge of calls from his team elsewhere in the city about other cars that can be seized.

By the day’s end, 11 vehicles had been taken off the streets, with a total of six blue badges, which were being misused, also being taken.

Steve Hewett is the head of the council’s criminal investigations team and was on the operation.

The army veteran is proud of the work he does and says he loves working with people.

‘The impact we can have on communities and people can be huge,’ he says after leading the seizure a few untaxed vehicles parked on a grass verge in Northern Parade, Hilsea, and some in a car park in nearby Doyle Avenue.

After taking some of the cars in Northern Parade, he is approached by a resident who spoke of his relief.

The man, who asked not to be named, tells me: ‘This has been a big issue for us for months. It’s made people feel uneasy.

‘All we’re trying to do is do the right thing and follow the rules but people that cause these offences don’t give a damn.

‘It’s not right. So I’m over-the-moon to see that something is being done. I just hope it continues.’

Portsmouth City Council said enforcing the rules was key as it helps to fund the pay and display scheme – surplus cash of which is then ring-fenced and pumped back into improving parking facilities and roads on the island.

In 2017 the city council’s made a £5,070,000 profit, a surge of £3.3m in the past five years.

Councillor Simon Bosher, cabinet member for traffic and transportation, says is essential the authority continues its work to clampdown on parking cheats.

And as the New Year rolls in, Cllr Bosher issued a warning to those considering flouting the scheme’s rules: ‘These regular operations demonstrate that we will not tolerate blue badge misuse.

‘We work hard to protect the integrity of the scheme, to make sure those who need assistance receive help and those who use blue badges illegally are fined.

‘Each year we recover more blue badges, those who abuse the system will not go unnoticed.’

Excuses of the street cheats

EXCUSES range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

But whatever the lie, investigators from Portsmouth City Council will always see through them.

So says one of the authority’s top parking investigation officers, Steve Goodall.

He and his team have been behind scores of successful prosecutions, hitting record heights this year and being named one of the UK’s leading authorities in tackling parking offences.

Now he has reflected on some of the excuses told by fraudsters trying to weasel their way out of punishment.

‘People will do absolutely anything,’ he says. ‘It’s absolutely disgusting some of the excuses we hear and some of the justifications that people come out with, saying that “my mum left it to me in her will” or “I thought it went with the car”.

‘The favourite one is people only keep deceased person’s badges in their car as a “memory” of that person because they want that last picture on the back of a disabled person’s badge.’

Among the top stories includes a woman who begged her son to pretend to be her disabled husband after she was caught out misusing her loved one’s blue badge.

‘She told me her husband was stuck in the toilet in Cascades and couldn’t get out,’ says Steve.

‘I contacted Cascades’ security to just check to see if he was actually in the toilet and was stuck.

‘They couldn’t find any sort of sign of him.

‘I then got a phone call from someone stating that they were the badge holder and that they were stuck and panicking.

‘It was another half an hour before the woman admitted that actually her husband was at home and didn’t know anything about it and the person who I got a phone call from pretending to be the badge holder was her son.

‘All this was to try and get away with paying for a £1.50 parking ticket.

‘She said she didn’t have any money to pay for a parking ticket – however, she did have enough cash to pay for a haircut.’

Another woman lied about using her elderly mother’s badge to go shopping in the city centre.

‘Her mum was in her 90s,’ recounts Steve. ‘She told us that her mum was waiting behind Debenhams, I said we will walk down there and wait for your mum to give her her badge back.

‘An hour later she turned up with dear little old mum in her nightie in the car.

‘She had gone to Hedge End to go and take her mum who had dementia out of a care home to bring her back just so we didn’t think she had been misusing a disabled person’s badge.

‘We contacted the care home and the mum hadn’t left the home in weeks and the daughter had just gone up there, grabbed her out saying it was a family emergency and then brought her back just to get away with a £2.50 parking ticket.’