Ahe summer, exasperated motorists have been banging on their phones, trying to download and install yet another parking app. Then follows the endless task of entering card details and license plate number, which can ultimately be derailed by poor phone signal or a glitchy app.
Age discrimination activists say navigating the process can be overwhelming for some seniors who, in the words of veteran consumer advocate Dame Esther Rantzen, are at risk of being “jailed at home.”
Those who loathe this seemingly unavoidable aspect of the modern world will take little or no comfort in knowing that the rise of digital parking is making some rich people even richer.
Ten members of Germany’s sprawling Porsche automotive dynasty, which controls Volkswagen, were named in accounts filed with Companies House this month as “significant control persons” behind PayByPhone, one of the UK’s most successful parking apps. It paid £13.6m worth of dividends in the year to the end of December 2020, documents show.
Last year’s accounts show a return to profit after the impact of the pandemic, with profits of £172,000 thanks to a 24% rise in revenue to £4.2m.
Local government revelations show the company has spread across Britain, winning contracts with councils including North West Leicestershire, Luton, North East Lincolnshire and Sheffield, to name a few.
Its website lists more than 120 areas where it collects cash from drivers, covering hundreds of local authority sites as well as private companies and the National Trust.
But PayByPhone is just one player in a burgeoning market that includes Saba, Just Park and UK market leader RingGo, which has contracts with the City of London, North Devon, Leeds and Nottingham, and has thousands of locations. on your website.
RingGo is part of the Park Now Group, which was owned by another German auto giant, BMW-Daimler, until it was sold in 2021. The buyer, EasyPark Group, is in turn owned by Vitruvian Partners, a pan-European private equity powerhouse. with around £8bn of assets.
Vitruvian’s 12 members, the senior employees entitled to a share of their benefits, have pocketed payments worth more than £100m in the last two years alone, thanks to astute investments like EasyPark.
The accounts of the Dutch parent company of Park Now, a subsidiary of EasyPark, show that it is doing something common with tech companies aiming to dominate its sector, such as Uber and Tesla: grow very fast while incurring huge losses.
Turnover in 2017 was €46m (£39m), including the US and Europe, but doubled to €92m in 2019, the last reporting period before the pandemic hit sales. . During the same period, a pre-tax profit of €1.1 million turned into annual losses of more than €30 million, largely due to tripling of personnel costs as the company annexes each more and more car parks.
The accounts also reveal exactly where Park Now gets most of its income from. In 2019, 7 million euros came directly from the municipalities that pay for their services, but the vast majority, another 79 million euros, came directly from the users of the application. EasyPark declined to comment.
Councils that use such services deny that they are losing valuable revenue that could be spent on public services. A Leeds City Council spokesman said it did not have the capacity to operate its own app-based parking service.
The local authority benefits, he says, because it receives the parking fee, and RingGo charges a 15p transaction fee. Customers paying in cash will not pay this fee.
In Nottingham, a council spokesman said the use of PayByPhone saved the authority money, reduced incidents of vandalism and theft at ATMs and meant there was no need to have vehicles on the road collecting money from them.
However, there may be another benefit to tips from a system that some find more difficult to use. Data obtained under freedom of information legislation earlier this year showed that councils collected £158m in parking tickets in areas that offered a cash option. In those that didn’t, the figure skyrocketed to £257m.
What may be lucrative or pragmatic for councils can be stressful for drivers, especially in the growing number of areas where cashless payment is the only option.
Earlier this year, music writer Pete Paphides was inundated with stories of bad experiences with digital parking, after tweeting about how her 84-year-old father had been having trouble using an app while trying to make it to a friend’s funeral in Birmingham on time.
“It was him and a bunch of other Cypriot veterans all calling their kids because there was nowhere else to park and they thought maybe they could get in touch with the company and explain it to them,” Paphides said. “But of course you can’t communicate with a human being.”
Paphides’ father died before he could pay the resulting fine, forcing the writer to enter into a protracted and ill-timed dispute with a debt recovery company, forcing him to provide a death certificate.
Asked what options there were to help older people in cashless locations, Nottingham City Council said that, like other local authorities, it had set up payment points at local shops, where drivers could hand out notes or coins.
However, this option has the potential to be confusing, time-consuming, and requires additional physical exertion for the elderly or disabled.
Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s charity director, said the charity found that many older people don’t have a smartphone or credit card, meaning car parks that don’t accept cash don’t serve them.
“If they also have mobility problems, then it can be even worse, even completely preventing people from leaving their house,” he said. “We are still light years away from a world where digital technology can help everyone, and public bodies and car park management companies should recognize this.
“Operators can save some money by not processing cash, but it is the digitally excluded in their communities, many of them older people, who pay the price.”
There’s another way the tips could go, one in evidence on the harbor arm of the Kentish seaside town of Folkestone. The land is not owned by the council but by a private company, Folkestone Harbor & Seafront Development Company, whose website proudly states: “Our car park does not use RingGo payment.”
Instead, the firm, owned by Sir Roger De Haan of the dynasty behind the Saga brand for over-50s, contracted with a small company to provide an automatic number plate recognition system, which connects to its own payment website. .
Although using the internet is still the main point of contact, there is no need to download any apps and the site is much more intuitive than an app, more like making a purchase from an online retailer.
Cash-accepting machines are also available, as is a duty officer who can help when things go wrong.
Luke Bain, director of the Folkestone Harbor & Seafront Development Company, said the company was not only making money from its system, but visitors were finding it easier.
“We didn’t want people to associate our parking lot with tickets and ticket notices,” he said. “I hope councils just don’t bother to do anything different than the norm because they have limited resources.”