How is this legal? Why unregulated wheel clamping is still a lucrative hobby

$760 for half an hour of illicit car parking? Seems steep. Rebecca Stevenson investigates how the clamping industry operates.

They are back at it again. Bashford Antiques, the clamping company hiding in plain sight as a second hand shop, audaciously claimed $760 from a punter who parked in its Ponsonby car park. It seems like a lot of money for half an hour of parking, but once a device has been fitted to your wheel (the clamp) rendering your vehicle immovable, what are you going to do other than pay up?

Unfortunately for the clampee, owners of private car parks can clamp at will essentially. There are no overarching laws or regulations to capture how it’s meant to play out when someone parks in a private car park. MBIE’s consumer protection site says “private, commercially-operated parking is governed by a contract between you and the operating company. There is no specific law relating to privately owned parking, although certain aspects – such as signage, may be covered by the Fair Trading Act and Consumer Guarantees Act”.

If there’s a sign up it has to be visible, and clearly explain the rules of engagement in the car park. And if you break those rules, which are usually along the lines of anyone that is not allowed to park here is not allowed to park here or we will tow or clamp you, then they can tow – or clamp you. What they can’t do is charge you $760 to take the clamp off, if you argue successfully the charge is excessive. But they have your car hostage; what are the odds people will leave their car in the clamp?

This is how we get story after story after story of clampers slapping on the cuff and demanding unreal money. A guy even wrote and filmed a protest song about it. He was clamped while setting up his gear for a free concert paid for by the council outside the library. The song is both epic and informative, littered with insults and instructions like “take it to small claims court” and “we need gates on private car parks” (for more advice head here).

There is a more sinister side to the car park shake downs. On a few occasions people have reported feeling intimidated by the actions of clampers, and the clamping companies have also claimed their staff have been threatened. What can we do about this ridiculous situation?

Well, it’s not like this Government has been entirely sitting on its hands. Simon Bridges ushered in the first voluntary code of conduct in 2012, and the code was updated in 2015, under minister Paul Goldsmith.

The code sets out a range of options for dealing with cars that are unwelcome car park visitors; starting with a breach notice (a ticket), towing, and then clamping as a last resort for repeat offenders. The key bit of it is that it was meant to cap clamp fees so they were never above $200. All the legit/big players who have a reputation to sort-of lose signed up to the code, and have been adhering to it for the most part. Some of the smaller clamping companies signed up too, but it was all done as a sort of polite agreement which has turned out to be virtually worthless, with many businesses operating on a clamp-first-charge-as-much-as-you-can-get-away-with policy.

But we could just ban it. It worked in the UK, and the AA has already called for it here in 2016 after another spate of happy clampers.

It’s a bummer, but this is where the rubber hits the road with a hands-off, market-driven approach. It seems fair to argue that these people parked on private property but $760, or $300, or even $100 seems excessive when set against the costs incurred. We’ve had little interference by government in a number of industries, for a long time because they’ve been the ones in power and that’s their thing, mostly. And yes, Consumer Affairs Minister Jacqui Dean made noises early this year she would tighten the rules around clamping; but excuse me for feeling jaded. It seems like Bashford and their ilk will be able to keep clamping a while yet.

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