From the first traffic wardens in London, April 1960, through to decriminalisation in the 1990s and the various whims of government since.
This applies to England; most is very similar in the rest of the UK, but some important differences do apply.
Double yellow lines and parking meters were both first introduced in the UK during the 1950s. In September 1960, The first Traffic Wardens were introduced in London. They were employed by the police to enforce parking restrictions. Traffic Wardens were later for introduced across the rest of the country. Powers to enforce parking restrictions were held by the police: police officers could enforce them but most enforcement was done by the Traffic Wardens various police forces employed.
Traffic levels rose, but pressure on police budgets diverted funds away from parking enforcement to more serious crime. Councils had the powers (from 1958) to charge for parking on highways, but there was inadequate enforcement, so it was rarely used. When the regulations were enforced, they were enforced by Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs), which are an option to avoid being tried for a criminal offence – the process for challenging a ticket was to go to a magistrates’ court and be tried, risking a far bigger fine. Ignoring a ticket could lead to prison time (not directly, but via contempt of court for not paying a fine). Off street, councils could issue Excess Charge Notices (ECNs) on their car parks, which worked in much the same way.
With increasing need for enforcement, but decreasing resources, something needed to be done. In 1991, it was. The Road Traffic Act 1991 created decriminalised parking enforcement, which allowed councils to apply for the power to enforce some of the restrictions themselves – and to encourage them to do so, allowed them to keep the money raised. This solved the problem of lack of enforcement. To deal with the problem of the process being unduly punitive in some circumstances, the councils who applied for decriminalised parking enforcement would not be issuing FPNs or ECNs, but a new type of ticket – the Penalty Charge Notice (PCN). These do not go through the criminal process, but a new process under civil law, where penalties can be appealed against, first to the council, then to an independent adjudicator. Unpaid penalties are registered as debts and pursued by bailiffs. The new PCNs would be issued by Parking Attendants, who could be employed directly by councils, or by private companies working on behalf of councils.
Councils, especially in London, took to this enthusiastically and in some cases too enthusiastically. Many contracted out the enforcement to private companies, with contracts that gave both the council and the private company incentive to issue as many tickets as possible. This incentive was then often passed on to the Parking Attendants, and allegations of corruption, unfair tickets, and a focus on revenue raising over service provision abounded.
This widespread perception of poor behaviour by local authorities and their parking attendants, combined with their reduced powers compared to the Police-employed traffic wardens exacerbated the poor reputation of parking enforcement as a whole. PCNs had to be placed on the windscreen, so attempts to prevent Parking Attendants serving a penalty they had issued, by violence, threats, or reckless driving became a problem.
Some restrictions, such as parking on pedestrian crossings, were not decriminalised, so could not be enforced by the Parking Attendants who may be issuing a penalty to the next car along, on a different restriction.
The Traffic Management Act 2004 was introduced to address these problems. This replaced Decriminalised Parking Enforcement with Civil Parking Enforcement, and Parking Attendants with Civil Enforcement Officers (CEOs). The tickets themselves remained PCNs, but now, came at two different amounts for different contraventions – parking somewhere where parking is not allowed, such as yellow lines, can result a PCN for a higher amount than not following the rules somewhere parking is allowed, such as overstaying a time limit. Although passed in 2004, it didn’t (for these purposes) come into effect until 2008.
Bonus schemes for issuing PCNs were banned, a rules on how the revenue could be spent were changed. Clearer advice on the appeals process was published. Councils were given the power to issue PCNs by post if the CEO was prevented from serving it, or if it was captured by an “approved device” – a enforcement camera system. Separate regulations, brought into force in 2005, allowed councils to use these camera systems to enforce bus lanes with PCNs. Restrictions on when clamping can be used were tightened. Powers to enforce some additional restrictions, most significantly the pedestrian crossing zig-zags, were introduced.
Councils were encouraged to widen the scope of the Civil Enforcement Officer role, with powers for enforcing littering legislation or other highways related tasks, and increase the pay and training standards to increase professionalism and standards within parking enforcement.
About the same time, Councils in London, who had been able to use cameras before, gained powers to use cameras for more things, such as box junctions and banned turns. Cameras can be fixed in place, but are also often fitted to vehicles. Penalties issued by camera quickly became unpopular, partly because they were catching people who did not expect to be caught, or see any reason for the restriction, but also because being issued through the post instead of being spoken to by a person at the time left people feeling like the penalties were automatic (they are not; each one is issued by a person based on the camera footage collected, but that person is in an office and never seen by the driver), and where they would expect a warning from a police officer, were now expected to pay a penalty.
In 2014, the government announced it would “ban spy cars”, and under the Deregulation Act 2015, introduced new regulations restricting where cameras could be used for parking enforcement, which restricted their use to bus lanes, bus stops, school entrance markings, and red routes, preventing them from being used for other restrictions such as pedestrian crossings. It also did not remove the powers London councils only had for enforcing some moving traffic offences. This had little practical impact for most authorities, as most cameras had been used primarily for bus lanes and school restrictions, but some were left with relatively little for their expensive equipment to do. New regulations also provided a similarly mis-publicised ten-minute grace period. Then Communities Minister Eric Pickles, who introduced the bill and associated regulations, had previously made comments about allowing motorists to stop for fifteen minutes on double yellow lines to go to the shop, but the ten minutes grace period actually introduced applied only to overstaying time limits and paid for time such as expired pay and display tickets or meters.
Some anomalies remain in the enforcement regulations and processes. There a still a handful of parking restrictions (including causing an obstruction, parking where there is a solid white line in the centre of the road, and rules regarding night time parking and lights) which can only be dealt with by the police, but many police forces refer all parking problems to the local authority. Areas with two tiers of local government (a county council and a borough or district council) have responsibility for on-street parking with the county and off-street car parks with the borough, making consistency more difficult to achieve. Pavement parking is a difficult problem, and is one of the remaining differences between London (where there is a clear, specific ban that councils can enforce) and the rest of England (where it is only banned in specific places, by other restrictions, or for vehicles over 7.5 tonnes)