I have often spoken of my distaste for dealing with the council.  It seems to me that it is an organisation where the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing and I find that this problem goes across the board.  Previously I have dealt with Camden, Brent and now Westminster.  Other people who deal with other local councils report the same problems.  I can only assume that government funding leads to pointless red tape, and serious inefficiency. Case in point: Londoners will no doubt have noticed that road works increase towards the end of the financial year.  Is this because potholes develop more during these months?  Do traffic lights and pavements suddenly fall apart after Christmas?  Do they fall prey to the depression that hits us all in mid-January?  I think not.  What happens is the government gives each Council a budget for roadworks.  If they don’t use it up, they won’t get the same amount the following year.  Cut to the creation of useless roadworks and pavements all over your area before the financial year ends.  I mean, really – extending the pavements?  For what?  Just to make it harder for drivers to use the already narrow roads?  It’s not like we are in an American urban area where most of the roads have four lanes and there is room for traffic in both directions…  I live in North West London which means that many of the roads are two way streets, but in fact there isn’t space to overtake a bicycle never mind have traffic flowing smoothly in both directions.  Extending the pavements therefore seems ill-advised and illogical to say the least.  I find it extremely frustrating as a driver to have the field of play constantly narrowed.  Presumably, as pedestrians, we will now be able to skip happily along the road, four people at a time Wizard of Oz style blessing the council all the way.

I went off-piste again, sorry.  This time I was trying to sort out residence parking and council tax.  Yes, council tax, the money you pay to the council so that they in turn can employ people to come over your house and assess and identify large appliances before sending out someone else to come and dispose of them.  When I first got possession of the flat, I was expecting a letter from the council.  I mean the one thing they are usually ruthlessly efficient about is sending bills and parking/traffic fines.  I didn’t hear anything from them.  Eventually, I went online and registered myself as the person responsible for the bills at my address.  Still no council tax bill.  I was wondering what was going on, after all, I do need to budget for these things.  About five days after I moved in, I called up the council and asked what was going on and when I would receive a bill.  The woman said that I would receive a bill 10 days after moving in.  Reassured, I stopped worrying.  Exactly 10 days after moving in, I get a letter from the council.  Great I thought, that’ll be the council tax bill.  I opened the letter.

Red letters greeted me:

NOTICE OF LIABILITY ORDER

I read on, confused.  Basically, they were sending me a threatening letter demanding payment of £1200 for council tax and fines.  There was no mention in the letter about the time period covered by the bill, so I assumed that the bill was from the end of June to mid-October.  I was pleased about moving into Westminster as council tax here is supposed to be cheaper than in other councils. £1200 for three and a half months seemed exorbitant.   It was late at this point, so I decided to call them the next day.  Next morning at 08:30, I call the office. 

“Hello, council tax, how can I help you?” came the bored answer after about 10 minutes of pressing buttons, listening to options which bore no resemblance to anything I wanted and a few moments of tinny awful music.

“Hi, my name is Maria blah and this is my account number.  I have just received a threatening order of liability notice, with forms talking about criminal offences and bailiffs.  Would you mind explaining how this works?  I haven’t received a bill from you yet, did you decided to skip the bill and just go ahead to the part where the bailiffs come and take the telly?”

“Let me just bring your details up Madam” (at least she didn’t say Sir.) “Oh, yes.  We sent you bills in July and August and you didn’t pay.  Now you have to pay this or the bailiffs will come.”

“I never received any bills from you.  Not in July, August, September or October.  In fact, the first communication I have had from you apart from a confirmation email I had from you when I registered as occupier of this property was this letter.  Please explain yourselves.”

“It’s on my computer that the letters were sent.  Therefore we behave accordingly.  We send an invoice, you don’t pay, we fine you and then send round the bailiffs.  You aren’t eligible for exemption are you?”

“No, I’m not and neither am I trying to avoid paying you.  I just wanted to know how much to pay before setting up a Direct Debit or something.  Also, how much is the fine?  I can’t believe how expensive it is!”

“The fine is £105, Madam.  Normally, you would pay £150 a month.”

“Ok, £150 a month for three and a half months is £575.  How did we reach the magical figure of £1200?”

“That includes the fine, Madam.”

“You just said the fine was £105”

“Yes Madam.”

“Well by my calculations , and I am the first to admit that I am no accountant, £575 plus £105 makes £680. This is still about £500 short of £1200.”

“Oh, no Madam, this is your council tax bill for the rest of the year up until the end of the tax year 31st March 2014.”

“Shouldn’t the period of taxation be mentioned on the demand?  How come I can’t pay by direct debit?”

“You missed the opportunity to do so by ignoring the letters we sent you.”

I gritted my teeth.  “I have just told you that I never received these alleged letters.  This information was therefore not available to me.  Surely you have had issues with letters not going through before?”

The woman sighed.  Clearly, it was too early in the morning for her to be hearing complaints about the postal service and money.  I was obviously wasting her precious time.

“What can I do about this?” I asked.

“The best thing to do Madam is to pay it before we send the notice on to the bailiffs in 14 days.  Then you can write us an email outlining your complaints and why you feel the fine should be refunded.”

“Is this one of those things where if I send you the money, it is an admission of guilt, and I don’t get a chance to contest it, like you guys do with parking tickets?”

“No Madam, this isn’t like that.  You can email your complaint even after you have paid.  I would strongly recommend paying as soon as possible though.”

“And I have to pay the whole amount?  I can’t just pay part or set up a direct debit?”

“No, Madam.  You can set up a direct debit for next year.  We send those letters out in mid-March.”

“I’ll be sure to look out for it.”

“Yes, Madam.  Was there anything else?”

“No, thanks.  What is your name please?”

“Kylie.”

“Thanks Kylie, I will be quoting you in my email.” 

Well. Kylie.  I just can’t get her out of my head.  And now she’s talking about sending the Bailiffs round.  And I am £1200 poorer.  Let’s just say my email was to the point.  The Greek point, not the British one.

Later that day, I found my residence parking permit on the doormat.  Oh goody, I thought.  This means I can stop worrying about the car at least.  At the time, my car was parked in a residence bay with a temporary permit I printed from the internet with the words NOT CONTROLLED on it under where it said zone.  I was thrilled to bits.  Even though it was a temp permit, I thought it meant I could basically park wherever I liked until the permanent parking permit came through with the appropriate zone on it.  I had left my car in a B Zone space on the strength of it.  The permanent permit said I was allowed to park in Zone N.  Perplexed I looked up the map online and zone N is zone NOT CONTROLLED.  Shit, I had been illegally parked for three days.  The Not Controlled zone allows parking in any of the London Parks in Westminster, subject to their particular parking restrictions.  This means that you cannot leave your car there overnight.  Not very handy for resident’s parking as I’m sure you agree.  I immediately call up the Westminster Parking people.  A guy called Gary comes on. 

“Hi Gary, my name is Maria blah, you have sent me the wrong zone parking permit.”

“What is the number of the permit?”

I told him the number.  “Oh yes, just one moment, let me put you on hold, I need to speak to my supervisor.” 

I waited about 5 minutes.

“Sorry about that, we have sent you the wrong parking permit.  Could you send us the permanent one and the one you printed off the internet, and we’ll send you the correct one.”

“Yes, but I have been illegally parked for three days, what if I have a ticket or I get a ticket whilst I am not displaying a current permit?”

“I will put a disregard notice on your car, so it will flag up with anyone who attempts to give you a ticket from now on. “

“I am not paying for any parking fines I have incurred since you sent me the wrong parking permit.”

“Understood Madam, you can contest them if you have any and we’ll sort them out for you.”

“Okay, thanks Gary, I’ll put them in the post today.”

It turns out, that when you apply online for a parking permit, the system automatically gives you the wrong zone.  If you call or go in person you can avoid this mistake, but then the parking permit is more expensive.  So every time anyone in my building gets a new permit, or even renews an existing one, they have to call the parking people, alert them to the problem and send back their permits to be replaced.  Once again, efficiency central.

Two missives to Westminster Council in one day, one containing a cheque to save me from being imprisoned and the other sending back the permits to prevent my car from being impounded.

Welcome to Westminster.

I am not impressed.

Advertisements