The air is heavy with chlorine and car fumes as two middle-aged ladies are fussing over something yellow wedged underneath the windscreen wipers of their Renault Megane. "Nooo, that's not right, I'm sure we've got five minutes left, what's the time?" The tone of disbelief is instantly recognisable. Redbridge dished out over 100,000 PCNs (Parking charge notices) last year. My local swimming pool car park is clearly traffic warden cat nip, but having sprayed his mark, the perpetrator has skulked off into the ribbon of terraced houses and is nowhere to be seen.
Over the next few weeks, variations of this story reoccur. We just wanted to know what it was like to be on the receiving end of a whole city's worth of wrath — if things had moved on since that tearjerker Confessions of a Traffic Warden was released or if we can get to meet a gallant, David Tenant type who spent his days falling in love and rescuing goldfish instead of issuing tickets, (see vids below) but so far the traffic wardens were proving elusive. With the possibility of parking apps such as AppyParking rendering the profession obsolete, the urge to speak to one increased. In fact, it took a barrage of "sorry we can't help you" emails from councils, multiple high street stalks, one car park stake out, and finally a stroll down a very well-to-do west London road before we found a traffic warden willing to chat off the record.
We spot the confident swagger of an enforcement officer, in signature high vis, with a bulky ticket issuing device in hand. It's just as we're meeting a friend for lunch in one of the top five boroughs for giving out parking tickets (these also happen to be some of the wealthiest: Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham, Camden, Islington and Kensington & Chelsea). And praise the traffic lords, this one stops to chat. Mark* is 24 years old, of African origin and has been in the job for six months.
Without prompting, he says the absolute worst thing is the abuse he suffers on a daily basis. Although strictly verbal; "the f-word, the s-word, the c-word etc", he says he's heard of colleagues being spat at, attacked and having their devices ripped from their hands. His response isn't exactly surprising.
Ever since the very first ticket was issued in 1960 to a Dr Thomas Creighton, who left his Ford outside a London hotel to help a heart attack victim, traffic wardens have been a much-loathed bunch. They’ve accumulated a long list of shouty headlines to cement their lowly position in today's hierarchy of public services. "Traffic wardens blocked road to stop for ICE CREAM", "Pair of traffic wardens caught SLEEPING", "Traffic warden hands out fines...while parking where he shouldn't" to name a few recent examples.
As Mark says, just slipping on the uniform can provoke an avalanche of threatening behaviour. It's not uncommon for body cams to be worn as a precaution against aggressive drivers. Mark motions to his camera, he says this and the fact that he's young and a body builder in his spare time means he isn't — outwardly at least — worried about being physically attached.
In 2009, two short films were released with traffic wardens at their center. The first stars a young, lean, gallant David Tenant, hopeless at issuing tickets but lucky in love and a dab hand at rescuing goldfish. The second, Confessions of a Traffic Warden, tells the personal stories of London's immigrant parking enforcement officers and their gradual disillusion with British people as they undergo a torrent of verbal and physical abuse on the job. You can probably tell which version is closer to the truth.
He says some of his friends see him as a hardworking, dedicated person who is making a life for himself, whereas others think he's trapped in a kind of modern slavery. He doesn't see it this way. "I wasn't born in the 80s, I don't carry that history around with me like some do". So how does he view his job? It all comes down to putting food on the table: "to be honest, I'm just doing it to survive."
As a van pulls up alongside us carrying potted hedges and gardening tools, the driver gives him a nod and says he'll only be five minutes. Mark replies with a "no worries boss". He knows how it feels to be on the other side of the fence, having once unwittingly racked up a £723 parking fine, which led to a running in with the debt collectors. Would he ever let his friends off? "Never," he says. "Even if it's your own dad, you have to stick to the rules (all 120 of them). I have to do my job, that's just the way it is." But as he says this, he lets slip a cheeky smile, which makes me think he might not be as ruthless as he makes out.
The first time he issued a parking ticket he was so nervous he waited 10 minutes for the driver to return instead of the allotted five. But as time has gone on he has warmed to the job. "Now when I see a controversial vehicle, it gives me a purpose, a reason to walk. This is when the job is most interesting — when I'm issuing lots of PCNs." We imagine this interest might have something to do with PCNs equalling £££.
Mention traffic wardens and there's one thing everyone wants to know: Are traffic wardens paid commission? While Mark skirted around my questions regarding his salary, the simple answer is yes... and no. In 2008, it became illegal for wardens to be set a target for the number of tickets issued. However, a quick scan of the latest job ads for London civil enforcement officers suggests although there might not be official targets, wardens are still incentivised to issue PCNs, particularly the harder-to-appeal types. Currently, just 0.5 per cent of drivers who get a fine, make an appeal, yet half of those who do are successful.
One afternoon in Dalston we spoke to a disheveled car wash guy in a carpark off Kingsland Road who described a kind of traffic warden stake out. At about 3pm, three or four traffic wardens turn up and hunch down behind the steering wheels of their inconspicuously rundown cars waiting to catch offenders. At the time it sounded fanciful but it makes sense if they're being paid commission. The ad below is seeking self-employed parking attendants, who'll get an extra fiver for every paid ticket issued to a vehicle.
While scrolling through the ads "Performance-related pay" is another phrase that catches our attention. If outwardly setting targets isn't allowed then wardens must be assessed on other criteria such as their attendance record and photo accuracy. Hackney Council says its enforcers are paid according to the quality not quantity of the ticket issued: "While APCOA [a parking management company] are not rewarded according to the number of PCNs they issue, they are paid for the quality of their enforcement decision when issuing PCNs that can withstand challenge." In the end, it doesn't seem to matter how traffic wardens are assessed the ultimate goal is the same: money, oh and safer roads obviously.
The average salary is between £16,000 and £21,000. Shifts are split into morning, afternoon or evening plus overtime and start as early as 6am and finish as late as 11pm, no matter what the weather is saying. "It is very, very lonely, you can walk thousands of miles without having a conversation with someone, you're on your own and it's boring," says Mark. Yet Mark says what some consider the negative aspects of the job are part of the appeal for others. "For some people, it's like they're their own manager, they get a buzz out of being the top boss. In this job, it's like you're always gaining, and you don't have to give anything back."
Nevertheless, Mark was probably openly chatting with us because he isn't in it for the long run. "I couldn't do this for years... maybe another three or four months, then I plan to do a course in electrical engineering." So, if you've got the emotional shell of an armadillo, don't mind the rain and long periods of alone time this could be the job for you.
* Mark isn't his real name.