Wednesday 27 March 2013

The Perils Of Puddlecote

If you're an assiduous reader, you may remember my hinting at a bizarre transport-related incident I was involved in earlier this month.
All this alongside a curious incident surrounding a towed vehicle which has taken up an inordinate amount of time. Believe me, though, the latter is a story of odd random human behaviour coupled with astounding public sector obstruction and incompetence that begs to be written about here at some point (it may even rival the fox palaver).
It all started one brisk agreeable Monday morning. Actually, scratch that, I remember now that it was snowing the big one and not a day you want to be leaving the desk once your seat is nicely warmed.

The Theft

We got a call from one of our groupage drivers that went something like this:

"It gone! My van, it gone! Stolen!" (he's Chinese, so therefore one of our best).

We were, naturally, very disturbed at this revelation especially since he had a pick up in 30 minutes' time. So Mr P Snr rang to urgently report it to the Police.

... After he had unsuccessfully reported it to the police on the much-trumpeted 101 number only to be met with a cheery recording saying that he couldn't be connected and, err, 'goodbye', he then Googled for an alternative which is nigh on impossible since local and national websites now carry nothing but the 101 non-emergency number.

Half an hour later (while other staff were shifting drivers around to cover the work), after a call to the neighbourhood support office - answered by a guy who sounded out of breath through walking the beat or something (though he could just as easily have been sorting out naughty Niki from the local newsagent for all we know) - we had a real number with a chance to talk to a real, live police-person.

Well, I say that, but it was only after the obligatory five menu options first. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we finally found out that the vehicle hadn't been stolen at all. The TRACE system was checked by the difficult to understand Spanish-accented operative, whereby we learned that it had been towed for being parked on a yellow line and was currently lazing around uneconomically in the council pound. In fact, on ringing the pound, we learned that it was very uneconomically going to cost us over £300 to reclaim it.

Note that it had been there for nearly 48 hours and no-one, but no-one, in the vast public sector transport machinery had bothered to tell us.

Not only that, but if we didn't get there by 10:33am, we would be charged another £40 for 24 hours storage as it had been taken at that time on the Saturday ... 25 minutes after it was ticketed.

We were, as you can imagine, rather pissed off at our driver and rang to ask what on Earth he was thinking by parking it there for the weekend when he has a permit which we supply. "I park in bay, I park in bay!", he agitatedly replied, the spittle almost travelling down the phone line to us such was his insistence.

No time to debate this further, as we had to get down there and retrieve it as soon as possible.

The Pound

What did we need to bring so that they'd let us take possession of our own property ... apart from a fistful of cash, of course?

"The owner must come and get it", they said.
"But the company owns it", we said.
"In that case, we need a director of the company to attend and bring a letter of authority along with the V5 and proof of ID".

That was my morning of assessing tenders for new business bollocksed, then.

So I hastily wrote a letter of authority with my name at the bottom of it, printed it off, and signed it before setting off with our maintenance guy as someone had to drive the thing back (that was his morning of, you know, maintaining vehicles bollocksed, too).

We did ask why it wasn't felt necessary to contact the owners and inform us where the vehicle was. Apparently, they only do that if it has been there for a week! How we are supposed to know where the fuck a vehicle has disappeared to without being notified is anyone's guess.

That was how we found ourselves in an 'office' at 10:28 which looked like it had been transported to the 21st Century in an errant and very mischievous Tardis. A payphone on the wall which looked like it belonged in a 1970s sitcom set; carpet which was undoubtedly reclaimed from a skip - a clue being that it didn't reach the skirting board on any of its four sides; age-weathered wooden blocks nailed to the floor as doorstops; and - inexplicably - two grubby plastic chairs with legs set into two strips of wood, presumably so they wouldn't move ... because I cannot believe anyone would try to steal them past the state of the art security-locked doors. Taxpayer comfort obviously comes a distant second to staff safety in this particular state establishment.

The chairs did come in useful, mind, as we had to wait while a poor sap in front of us went through the rigmarole of trying to get his own vehicle out of the prison-like electronic sliding gates. We just had to make sure we didn't stick to them when it was time to stand up.

"So, what do I need to bring?", he asked.

At this point I felt pretty smug that we'd rung ahead, while also a trifle worried that we were only five minutes from an extra £40 charge.

"V5, your driving licence, and the payment by card or cash", replied the woman behind the counter tersely.

I feel it adds to the narrative of this stage in the saga by describing her. She was, without doubt, one of the ugliest - perhaps even the ugliest - person I have ever encountered. It's not just because her face was like a bag of spanners after being trampled by a herd of buffalo, Lord knows I've met many of those who were actually very beautiful people, but also that her attitude stunk the place out. If she was born with any charm whatsoever, it had quite obviously been sucked out of her with an industrial Dyson.

"So, I bring all that, and I can get my car back, yeah?", asked the fella in front of us, still in shock at the price he was being asked to pay.
"Only if you're back by 11:45, or else it's another forty quid", she smirked back through lips permanently aged and wrinkled by years of sneering.
"OK, can I borrow your pen?"
"Why?", she droned.
"So I can write this down."

There was a pause while the woman - safely ensconced behind a bank-style glass screen - decided if she would allow him to use it or not.

"Please", he said, "I have already lost a day's work and want to make sure I don't forget anything when I come back".

She then, reluctantly, threw a chewed bookie's pen through the hatch.

"Thanks", he said, and after jotting down details, politely asked the standard question "what's your name for reference?"
"We don't give out names!", she barked, "what do you want my name for?"
"In case you're not here when I get back", his eyes showing that he was truly amazed that she had a problem with this.
"We don't give out names!", and, believe me, her scowl brought the temperature in the room down another ten degrees.

By this time, we were only left with a couple of minutes before another £40 ticked over, and I was less than confident that this woman would be one to gloss over the odd minute even if we'd been visibly waiting well before the 10:33 deadline. I wasn't wrong. When our turn came. she asked for the documents and pored over them. She then photocopied the lot before checking the clock and - I kid you not - going off to "talk to my supervisor as you were two minutes after 10:33 when I'd finished with your documentation".

A muffled conversation ensued out of our sight, before she re-emerged and - without letting us know the outcome of her conflab with the boss, nor even the courtesy of eye contact - simply asked how we were going to pay. I took this to mean that the pre-stated charge stood and produced the company debit card.

Paperwork completed, we were buzzed into the yard to collect our vehicle.

"You know what?", my colleague opined as headed to the bay she had noted down for us, "I reckon the only reason she didn't charge us the extra was cos we were polite".
"Perhaps", said I, "but how does anyone become as utterly charmless as that?".
"Well, she must meet some right angry people in there."
"I would expect so, yes, but if she wasn't such a shitty person she might meet a damn sight less of them!"
"Maybe she enjoys the aggro, then". I couldn't really argue, I have to say.

The Shunt

As you do, we cursorily checked over the van before taking it back. That was when we noticed the damage.

Nothing too serious, but a rear reflector was cracked, the bumper slightly bent, and paint cracked and flaking from the rear offside corner of the bodywork. The pound staff said they knew nothing about it, and that it couldn't have been through towing as it was loaded onto a flat-bed truck which involved only lifting with straps round the wheel areas. The handbrake was still applied and doors locked, so no-one could have driven it and it couldn't have rolled into anything, especially since it was parked nose first down a slight decline in the road anyway.

Returning to the office, it began to make sense. You see, our industrious Chinaman had got himself into a blue funk about this and spent the intervening period badgering a few businesses in the road to look at their CCTV. His persistence produced a result too, as one had footage which he had filmed on his iPhone.

We watched open-mouthed as the images showed our van being whacked heavily from behind and rolling two house lengths down the hill before stopping in front of a dropped kerb ... on a yellow line! What's more, we knew who did it too, since the woman driving the car instantly hopped out and comically ran down the road after it with her arms in the air in panic. It was the stuff of Norman Wisdom vintage right there in front of us.

"See? Told you. I park in bay! I park in bay! I park in bay!", screeched our driver almost bouncing off the walls with glee.

The Police ... Again

Now, this put an entirely different complexion on the matter. Far from being nasty anti-social transgressors, it was now unmistakeable that we were victims who had just been taken for £300+ due to the incompetence of others.

The incident had not been reported to us so it was a cast-iron case of hit and run, surely? So we rang the police again ...

... Another half hour - and three different call centre staff later - we found that it wasn't that at all. The incident had, indeed, been reported to the police. They even had a CAD number for it.

So, what had happened was that someone had badly shunted our vehicle onto a yellow line, causing damage in the process. The person who did so had rung the police to report the accident. The police - instead of notifying the owner - had called the local council, who promptly attended the scene ... and ticketed then towed it.

Two days later, after intensive digging, we finally found out what had happened to our property and then spent a day retrieving it and piecing the whole mess together. Did I mention, by the way, that our company last year paid in the region of £180,000 in taxation over to HMRC to fund our wonderful public services? That's without counting business rates which, if you didn't know, doesn't include picking up our bins ... that's extra. Just thought I'd throw that in.

Despite the incident already having been reported, we were told that our best bet for reclaiming this £300 from someone (anyone!) would be to fill in a 'self report incident form'. So we phoned our neighbourhood support team again.

"Hello?", said our perennially breathless copper, still seemingly running a marathon or boinking naught Niki.
"Hi, would you be able to pop over our place when you're passing as we have a disc with CCTV footage on it and want to report a traffic incident".
"No, you'll have to go to a police station for that, the nearest one is three miles up the road.", why did I not guess?

I could tell you more about that process. The incredibly charming black police officer behind shiny, expensive-looking, remote control glass sliding doors for his security ... who instead chose to leave reception and come out of the side door to talk while holding it open with his foot; the 10 page form I was to fill in rather than just give a CAD number and show the CCTV footage; the picture I was told I must draw on the form regardless that I had filmed evidence; or even the legally-mandated disabled lift that simply didn't work meaning that a woman with a pushchair had to be helped up the stairs by two guys who were in the station to do their weekly reporting after an anti-social behaviour charge.

But I won't. All I will say is that now - three weeks on - we are still £300+ down; have heard not a peep out of the police; and are pretty unimpressed with the whole experience. It's true that we've probably expended about the same £300 in time, effort and expenses, but what would you do?

The Lesson

We've learned a lot from it, though, but I'd venture to say not in a good way.

We've learned that despite state monoliths having been intelligently built to track vehicles, their sale, regulations, road tax, and insurance, none of it is used to help the public. If you're not taxed, insured, or you parked in the wrong place, they will nab you in an instant, maybe even crush the bloody thing . If simple notification is required, however, those expensive systems cease to be operable, apparently.

Another lesson is that traffic enforcement doesn't have any bearing on circumstances. Towing as a first option could be understandable if it seriously impedes traffic flow, but this incident occurred in a cul-de-sac.

We've also learned that style over substance would appear to be the case with the police. Years of public expenditure on systems, centralisation and localism, simplification (ha!) and openness have led to it being more difficult than ever to speak to an actual copper, about an actual problem.

Additionally, we have learned that next time we are charged £300 for a tow, it is economically more astute for us to just suck it up and not waste our time and resources investigating any further. Doing what is right is not encouraged in the 21st century.

Lastly, and most sadly, we are reminded yet again that the state is not your friend. You pay into it a huge sum but - like the poor guy who was charged £300 plus earnings from a day's work - losses to the economy are what it is good at. And it is doing this nationwide. Every day.

I'm not giving up just yet, though. I'll be ringing our neighbourhood support geezer again tomorrow to see how his, ahem, mountain-climbing is going.


Carl V. Phillips said...

Um, wow. Thanks for telling the story. A bit off your or my usual topics, but perhaps a perfect metaphor for them. I envy the fact that you all have health care, but it is nice to be reminded of how useful American institutions like local elected officials' "constituent services" offices (or even the local news station) are when something so totally absurd like this happens.

Jay said...

Don't automatically envy our healthcare. In some circumstances it's pretty good or adequate, but it's the not that great. Besides, imagine being nagged to death about smoking and drinking every time you visit your doctor, or your dentist, or happen to pop in the pharmacy. "Are you still smoking?" they ask, with a condescending smirk. "Go fuck yourself," one might reply. :P

Dick_Puddlecote said...

It's definitely my usual stuff as I have a transport tag. I occasionally take to boring readers with it. ;)

I'm not sure elected officials would help here. Government statutes already state that towing should only be a last resort and only when traffic flow is compromised, yet - as we see in this case - local authorities blithely ignore it for revenue purposes. While researching during this fiasco, I came across many tribunals which were presented with objections on legal lines and which routinely refunded the monies. Never on the basis that the towing was illegal because that would open the floodgates to crippling backdated claims, but always on a technicality which was sometimes laughably weak..

Apparently, banks must abide by the law and repay billions for mis-sold PPI, but local authorities are protected by their government chums for stealing money from the public.

Lysistrata Eleftheria said...

It's another of your gripping stories which tells it how it really is trying to run a business in the UK. I'm spitting tacks on your behalf.

You did a great one last year, about the reams of duplicated paperwork and time wasted simply to be allowed to be on a list of businesses who might possibly be considered for a local authority transport contract.

And you demonstrated that such bureaucratic and unnecessary barriers reduced the possible contractors from around 40 to 3. These were the ones who were large and lucky enough to have spare capacity to spend non-productive hours filling in non-essential forms and attending non-productive meetings, jumping through unnecessary hoops on the offchance they may be allowed to put in for the contract.

And of course the price quoted ought to reflect the downtime spent on unnecessary bureaucracy.

They're taking the piss, aren't they?

Chris Woods said...

Sounds like a case for your newly elected police commissioner to me. The 101 number should work and the police should have known the accident had been reported. Needs investigating. Commissioners get paid enough and are your representative, give one some work!

John Davidson said...

Bankrupt Jersey Casino To Lift Smoking Ban

Most Expensive Property Ever Built There Will Change Some Things

by Brian Pempus | Published: Mar 27, 2013 | E-mail Author

Jay said...

Earlier I wrote a comment to you, Carl. It was about healthcare. It got moderated. Perhaps it will return from the ether...

Rob said...

Why would they inform you immediately? They would lose revenue.

Fred Barboo said...

I suffered a similarly illogical episode a few years ago. Here’s a quick summary:

I was parking on a residential street in Edinburgh and, concerned I’d block a drive way, I parked quite close to the car in front of me. As it turned out, the car I had parked close to had also, itself, parked quite close to the car in front of it. So, when the woman returned to her car she was unable to get it out.

As she need to pick up her kids from school and couldn’t move the car, she called the police who, after assessing the situation, called a police tow truck. When the truck arrived they lifted my car and took it to a police pound.

To get to the police pound and recover my car I had to take a 20 minute train ride out of town and walk down a single track country road in the dark. I can’t remember exactly, but I had to pay £160/180 to have it released.

If I had parked illegally and the council had towed it I would have had to pick it up in central(ish) Edinburgh and it would have cost my £120/130.

I wrote several letters to the local rozzers and explained that the car was legally parked and I hadn’t known that I had blocked the car in front. I also asked why (on God’s green earth) they hadn’t either moved my car and put it down again OR just lifted the ladies car out and let her get on her way (if it is illegal to block another car in I was only half the story – she too had parked too close to another car). I suspect the reason was that they needed to fine someone to pay for the cost of calling the tow truck. And that mug, in this case, was me.

It’d have been cheaper and quicker to have parked it illegally. Good work blue boys.

To this day I still get angry about this when I tell the story (it happened in 2007). Not so much the incident, but the feeling of total helplessness against the stead fast refusal of the authorities to listen to logic and consider my case. I was just a wee irritant to be ignored. No concern that £160/180 to a student (which I was at the time) was about 2 weeks earnings.

moonrakin said...

It could be LOL but actually if you're on the receiving end...

My stepson had his Ford Escort van towed after it was stolen...

Around 9:30 pm neighbours heard (and witnessed) the van being broken into and dialled Avon & Somerset 999 only to be told "we don't have a unit available".

The scrotes only managed to get around the corner before the fuel supply expired ;-) and left the vehicle with 2 wheels on the pavement - from where it was towed around an hour later (Bath city centre).

It wasn't until the next day that it was volunteered - via the process you so eloquently describe that the vehicle was in the police pound.

£200 and a wasted day... and a bunch of attitude from the cnuts at the pound.

If you pursue this - take no prisoners :-)

David Davis said...

When I'm War Secretary....(you all know the rest by now.)

PeterKenneth24 said...

Yet another amazing post from your side! Great! Keep up the good work! I enjoyed it as usual!