I live in an area whose name isn't so much a place name as a synonym for the faddish folly of the bleeding-heart middle class. I live in Islington. And if the inner-London borough really were packed with foppish critics for the Times Literary Supplement talking Kant and with conceptual artists enjoying the newest and hottest Belorussian eatery, I would have no right to complain about the stereotype. But City bonuses have priced Islington's few bourgeois streets beyond the reach of young intellectuals, while the overwhelming majority of its homes are wretchedly poor.
The partners in the Big Four accountancy giants and the shop girls, the venture capitalists and the asylum-seekers appeared to have nothing in common, until traffic wardens united the drivers among them. Ever since the service was privatised, they have experienced zero-tolerance policing, and tales of the wardens' rapacity have supplanted the weather or the fortunes of Arsenal as the conversation opener guaranteed to break the ice. You may not care about the fate of the capital's motorists, but local government's voracious appetite for ready cash and Gordon Brown's efficiency drives all but guarantee that what is happening in central London will be coming soon to your neighbourhood.
On the face of it, the strict application of parking regulations is a policy everyone but Daily Mail readers should applaud. Making driving harder and more expensive benefits the environment and saves children's lives. Who but a Thatcherite sociopath could object to that?
But parking restrictions are still the law, and the example of Islington shows that when private companies are put in charge of law enforcement the law is pushed to its limit and beyond.
The first thing to go was wardens' discretion. There was no place for it. Hearses and the cars of residents giving evidence to the police have had tickets slapped on them. Contractors doing up the borough's rotting council estates have had to add the costs of recovering their vehicles from the car pound to the price of the job. "We are being deliberately targeted," cried one to the Highbury and Islington Express. "In the last two weeks alone, I have paid £719 on the company credit card for vehicles that were either clamped or towed away. It is ludicrous." Even Kate Winslet was clamped after she left her car for a moment to go into an Islington shop.
Winslet's experience was typical. In the past, cars could stand for hours or days with a ticket on the windscreen before being hauled away. Now they can be gone within minutes, as I found when I thought mine had been stolen while my back was turned, only to be directed by the weary local station to the NCP car pound. Inside, I was surrounded by furious or stunned people who were being hit with £250 fines. The NCP staff worked behind toughened-glass screens, which looked as if they could stop a bullet. Their days were spent listening to screaming rages and pleas for mercy, and their dead eyes and expressionless faces had the look of men and women who had trained themselves to be completely detached from the world in which they had to live.
There is no slack in the privatised system. And if you believe in "broken windows" theory, the right's favourite piece of cod criminology, no quarter should be expected or given. If you leave broken windows in a building, the theory runs, vandals will destroy the rest of the building. Once buildings are allowed to be wrecked, crime will escalate. Drug dealers will move in, decent citizens will move out and before you know it your neighbourhood will be looking like Najaf. For windows, read parking tickets. If funeral directors and witnesses to crimes find they can get away with breaking the law, anarchy will be loosed upon the world.
Like so many modern politicians, Steve Hitchins, Islington's leader, had to wrestle with the problem of how to promote efficiency in the public sector, which had the benefit in this case of also promoting the flow of money to his council. And like so many other modern politicians, he reached for the solution of privatisation. Before NCP moved in, the London Evening Standard regularly carried stories about wardens knocking off after an hour and going to cafes or to the cinema.
There's none of that now. Hitchins realised that his own managers weren't up to the job when, somewhat unwisely in the light of subsequent events, Unison called public sector wardens out on strike. NCP, which was already running services in a part of the borough, offered to send in a few of its wardens as strike-breakers. The revenue shot up, Hitchins told me, and he learned that his council could earn more if he gave NCP the contract to manage the whole borough.
He dismisses the complaints that fill the local papers as middle-class whingeing, and talks about joining with other councils across Britain to bulk-buy private warden services, in line with the Treasury's plans to promote economies of scale in public spending. He and other council leaders may have no choice but to privatise, as they are required by district auditors to make savings. If you live in a halfway congested town, it is likely that Islington parking law will be coming to you soon.
In theory, it sounds fair enough. Public money is being prudently spent and the affluent are learning that zero tolerance includes intolerance for their petty crimes as well as the crimes of the poor. And yet anyone who has seen London's parking privatisation in action knows that the price mechanism is an incentive for miscarriages of justice. NCP is contractually obliged to deliver so many thousand tickets a year. If it exceeds its target, it receives a cut of the additional income. Poor workers, most of them immigrants, are pushed to hit the target and make the profit. They have to get by on £6.75 an hour. They make extra money not by enforcing the law conscientiously but by issuing more tickets. The privatised wardens, or "parking attendants", as they have been pointlessly renamed, receive a £50 monthly bonus if they issue two tickets on average an hour, which rises to £215 if their hit rate rises to three tickets an hour.
One NCP worker in Westminster told the Standard that: "Wardens feel under massive pressure. Some end up issuing dodgy tickets to meet the targets. One attendant was fired recently for pretending he had fixed loads of tickets to car windscreens. Later dozens of tickets were found in his locker."
Everywhere you go, you hear stories like my neighbour's. He lives in a council flat but drives a Bentley (we don't ask where he got the money from in case we're mistaken for narks). One morning at 8am he caught a warden crawling along the pavement. The parking restrictions don't come on until 8.30am. According to the tickets he was surreptitiously slapping on cars, it was 9am. My neighbour is a big man and had to be restrained from beating the warden up.
A few streets away, a warden stabbed a 19-year-old in disputed circumstances. (Witnesses claimed it was because the boy had warned drivers that they were about to get a ticket.) The atmosphere has become so nasty that the police have to go on joint patrols with NCP staff to protect them from the public. No one, from the leader of the council downwards, would be surprised if someone was killed.
In its small way, what has happened in Islington shows why "broken windows" theory is a nonsense. English policing used to be as much about order as law. Discretion was applied and trouble was avoided by the police moving people on rather than applying the law to the letter. There were quiet words rather than arrests, and extenuating circumstances were taken into account.
The trouble with zero-tolerance policing is that it destroys the social balance and makes previously peaceful citizens violently intolerant of the law - and of the luckless men and women who have to enforce it.