Want to avoid traffic enforcement on Britain’s roads? Drive a foreign car

The congestion charge is something else you can avoid with the right licence plate. Image: Getty.

We need parking and traffic regulations in our towns and cities to keep traffic moving – at least up to a point. Without the one-way streets, box junctions and double yellow lines, serious gridlock would become a frequent occurrence. Congestion charging is there for the same reason. And without effective enforcement, all these regulations are pretty pointless.

The UK has one of the most effective and streamlined enforcement mechanisms for parking restrictions – and, in London, this extends to minor moving traffic contraventions, such as one-way streets, box junctions, bus lanes and width and weight restrictions. These largely rely on penalty charge notice (PCNs) issue following a warden visit, or on CCTV enforcement; and it’s the car’s keeper, as listed with the DVLA, rather than the driver, who’s liable for any penalty.

But there’s a growing group of vehicles that are immune from this enforcement and bring the process into disrepute. These are foreign-registered vehicles (FRVs).

As much as 4 per cent of traffic in some areas is registered abroad – and a higher percentage of PCNs are issued to them. FRVs come in four flavours:

  • HGVs and commercial vehicles;
  • Tourists and other short stay visitors;
  • Europeans on extended but fixed-term residence in the UK;
  • UK residents who have bought an FRV in France or elsewhere in Europe.

HGVs and commercial vehicles should be the easiest group to manage as they are reasonably well controlled at the ports – but there is still difficulty in getting access to their owners. Short stay visitors are also less likely to offend (except when confused) and, probably, we want to be nice to our visitors.

Longer-term visitors present more of a problem. Where someone with an FRV stays in the UK for more than 6 months they are meant to get their car re-registered at DVLA – but this requirement is rarely enforced and people who are over here for a fixed stay of, for example, two years are understandably reluctant to pay for a British registration and then pay again to go back to their original. Meanwhile, those who buy an old banger in Calais with the intention of running it into the ground avoid tax, insurance and MOT inspections, as well as avoiding traffic and parking enforcement.

And while most short stay visitors behave well, some holidaymakers will know that they are hard to catch up with – and can happily ignore any enforcement unless a police officer is there.

The difficulty for the authorities is that it’s really hard to trace the keeper of an FRV. Gaining access to vehicle keeper information across the EU, in the case of law enforcement, sounds straightforward. After all, the US has had automated keeper information exchange between the 50 state-based motor vehicle bureaux for more than 30 years.

In Europe, however, this is not the case as the law is still almost entirely nationally based, and most member states still have traffic regulation law based on the presumption that all vehicles are registered within that country. Even within the UK, it is less than 10 years since automated vehicle keeper data transfer has been agreed between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, brought about by the transfer of responsibility for Northern Ireland vehicle registration to the DVLA.


For many years there have been mechanisms for the manual transfer of vehicle keeper data between many EU states. But these are slow and expensive to operate: you must write a letter to the other country and, in due course, postal services willing, they will reply. At the end of the last century some bilateral deals were agreed (eg Benelux, Netherlands-Germany, Germany-Austria) for some automated data transfer, but these remain few in number.

In the field of security, counter-terrorism and immigration, the Prüm Convention of 2005 provided, amongst other things, for automated vehicle keeper data transfer between member states. The UK opted out of this convention in 2014 but rejoined in 2016.

A further EU directive on Cross Border Enforcement for serious traffic offences was agreed in about 2010. This covers offences such as drink-drive and speeding, as well as bus lane infringements, and requires member states to exchange vehicle keeper data on an automated basis. This directive has been transposed into UK law. It is, though, questionable just how helpful this might be in the case of civil enforcement, as the directive makes reference to process through criminal courts. and these are no longer involved in civil enforcement cases in the UK.

The technical mechanism for transferring data between the various vehicle licensing authorities (VLAs) is known as EUCARIS. The UK was one of the initiators of this activity, and was an early signatory of the EUCARIS treaty at the end of the last century. However, the UK signed up to the vehicle keeper data exchange part of EUCARIS only in 2017, and only uses it to respond to queries from other member states. Policy means that the DVLA will not use EUCARIS to make enquiries for themselves.

The official reason for this is that most of the offences covered by the EUCARIS treaty are driver-liability in the UK; and while UK law, backed by a judgement in the European Court of Justice, includes legal compellability, whereby a vehicle keeper is obliged to reveal the name of the driver at the time of the offence, this does not extend into Europe via EUCARIS. In part, this decision was based on an analysis by the DfT in about 2010 which concluded that there were no net benefits for the UK in taking part in this regime.

But having decided they were unable to use EUCARIS for more serious offences, DVLA are unwilling to use it for more minor contraventions, even though this is within scope.

The policy decision has also been influenced by ministerial concerns, from all recent governments, about the political impact of significant cross-border vehicle keeper data transfer. Brexit is unlikely to make anything in this area any easier.

So, if you’re a driver and want to keep off the radar screen, drive a car with a foreign plate.

An apocryphal story has it that there was a large fleet of Latvian registered BMWs, Audis and Mercedes in East London, but nobody could work out if their Latvian number plates and tax discs were real or manufactured in someone’s workshop. All we know is that, so long as they were reasonably good, nobody in authority wanted to find out.

 
 
 
 

British television once sounded like Britain. But then, the ITV mergers happened

The Granada Studios, Quay Street, Manchester. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, several ITV franchises celebrated half a century of continuous operation. There was a Yorkshire Television themed cake, and a flag bearing the company’s logo was flown over ITV’s Yorkshire base for a time. It was all very jolly – but while a few people beyond Britain’s small community of television historians and old telly nerds engaged with the idea, any excitement was brief.

The main reason for is not, as you might assume, that, in the era of streaming and so forth, ITV is no longer a dominant presence in many people’s cultural lives: even the quickest of glances at the relevant figures would tell you otherwise. No, it’s because the mere existence of ITV’s franchises is now passing out of common memory. They are the trademarks, literally rather than figuratively, of a version of ITV that today exists only nominally.

For most of its history, ITV operated on a federal model. ITV wasn’t a company, it was a concept: ‘Independent Television’, that is, television which was not the BBC.

It was also a network, rather than a channel – a network of multiple regional channels, each of which served a specific area of the UK. Each had their own name and onscreen identity; and each made programmes within their own region. They were ITV – but they were also Yorkshire, Granada, Grampian, Thames, and so on.

So when I was a child growing up the in Midlands in the ‘80s, no one at school ever said “ITV”: they said “Central”, because that’s what the channel called itself on air, or “Channel Three” because that’s where it was on the dial. To visit friends who lived in other regions was to go abroad – to visit strange lands where the third channel was called Anglia, and its logo was a bafflingly long film sequence of a model knight rotating on a record turntable, where all the newsreaders were different and where they didn’t show old horror films on Friday nights.

The ITV regions as of 1982, plus Ireland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, there were programmes that were shown across the whole network. Any station, no matter in what part of the country, would be foolish not to transmit Coronation Street during the period where it could persuade nearly half the population to tune in. But even The Street wasn’t networked from the beginning: it started in six of the then eight ITV regions, and rolled out to the other two after a few months when it became clear the series was here to stay.

This was a common occurrence: The Avengers, one of the few ITV series to genuinely break America, began in an even more limited number of regions in the same year, with other areas scrambling to catch up when the programme became a hit.

The idea behind ITV’s structure was that the regions would compete with each other to put programmes on the network, opting in and out of others’ productions as worked best for them. ITV was, after all, an invention of a 1950s Conservative government that was developing a taste for the idea of ‘healthy competition’ even as it accepted the moral and practical case for a mixed economy. The system worked well for decades: in 1971, for example, the success of London Weekend Television’s Upstairs, Downstairs, creatively and commercially, and domestically and internationally, prompted other regions to invest in high end period dramas so as to not look like a poor relation.


Even away from prestige productions there was, inexplicable as it now seems, a genuine sense of local pride when a hit programme came from your region. That Bullseye was made on Broad Street in Birmingham was something that people knew. That 17.6m people watched the 1984 Xmas special, making it one of the ten most watched programmes of the year, made Bully a sort of local hero. In more concrete terms, Bullseye and other Birmingham based programmes provided jobs, and kept that part of the country visible from all others. This was true of all areas, and from all areas.

ITV franchises would often make programmes that were distinctive to, or set in, their region. Another of Central’s late eighties hits was Boon. It might have starred the cockney-sounding Michael Elphick, but it was filmed and set in Birmingham, just as Central’s predecessor ATV’s Public Eye had been at the end of the sixties. In Tales of the Unexpected, one of the poorest and smallest ITV regions, the aforementioned Anglia, made a bona fide international hit, largely filmed in transmission area, too. HTV produced a string of children’s series set in its south west catchment area, including some, such as The Georgian House, that examined the way the area had profited from the slave trade.

There was another element of ‘competition’ in the structure of ITV as originally conceived: the franchises were not for life. Every few years, a franchise round would come along, forcing the incumbent stations to bid to continue its own existence against other local offerings.

The process was no simple auction. Ministers were empowered to reject higher financial bids if they felt a lower bid offered other things that mattered: local employment or investment, programming plans that reflected the identity of the region they were bidding to serve, or simply higher quality programmes.

Yorkshire Television itself owes its existence to just such a franchise round: the one that followed a 1967 decision by regulator IBA that Granada, until then the holder of a pan-northern England licence, was insufficiently local to Yorkshire. For a decade, commissioning and production had been concentrated in Manchester, with little representation of, or benefit for, the other side of the Pennines. IBA’s decision was intended to correct this.

Yorkshire existed in practical terms for almost exactly 40 years. Its achievements included Rising Damp, the only truly great sitcom ever made for ITV.

But in 1997 it was, ironically, bought out by Granada, the company who had had to move aside in order for it to be created. What had changed? The law.

In 1990, another Conservative government, one even keener on competition and rather less convinced of the moral and practical case for a mixed economy, had changed the rules concerning ITV regions. There was still a ‘quality threshold’ of a sort – but there was less discretion for those awarding the franchises. Crucially, the rules had been liberalised, and the various ITV franchises that existed as of 1992 started buying out, merging with and swallowing one another until, in 2004, the last two merged to form ITV plc: a single company and a single channel.

The Yorkshire Television birthday cake. Image: ITV.

Yorkshire Television – or rather ITV Yorkshire as it was renamed in 2006 – is listed at Companies House as a dormant company, although it is still the nominal holder of the ITV licence for much of Northern England. Its distinctive onscreen identity, including the logo, visible on the cake above, disappeared early this century, replaced by generic ITV branding, sometimes with the word Yorkshire hidden underneath it, but often without it. Having once been created because Manchester was too far away, Yorkshire TV is now largely indistinguishable from that offered in London. (It is more by accident of history than anything else that ITV retains any non-London focus at all; one of the last two regions standing was Granada.)

The onscreen identities of the all the other franchises disappeared at roughly the same time. What remained of local production and commissioning followed. Regional variations now only really exist for news and advertising. TV is proud that is can offer advertisers a variety of levels of engagement, from micro regional to national: it just doesn’t bother doing so with programming or workforce any more.

Except for viewers in Scotland. Curiously, STV is an ITV franchise which, for reasons too complicated to go into here, doesn’t suffer from the restrictions/opportunities imposed by upon its English brethren in 1990. It also – like UTV in Northern Ireland, another complex, special case – Its own onscreen identity. Nationalism, as it so often does, is trumping regionalism – although it was not all that long ago that Scotland had multiple ITV regions, in recognising its own lack homogeneity and distinct regions, while respecting its status as a country.


As is often observed by anyone who has thought about it for more than four seconds, the UK is an almost hilariously over-centralised country, with its political, financial, administrative, artistic and political centres all in the same place. Regionalised television helped form a bulwark against the consequences of that centralisation. Regional commissioning and production guaranteed that the UK of ITV looked and sounded like the whole of the UK. The regions could talk about themselves, to themselves and others, via the medium of national television.

The idea of a federal UK crops up with increasing frequency these days; it is almost inconceivable that considerable constitutional tinkering will not be required after the good ship UK hits the iceberg that is Brexit, and that’s assuming that Northern Ireland and Scotland remain within that country at all. If the UK is to become a federation, and many think it will have to, then why shouldn’t its most popular and influential medium?

A new Broadcasting Act is needed. One that breaks up ITV plc and offers its constituent licences out to tender again; one that offers them only on the guarantee that certain conditions, to do with regional employment and production, regional commissioning and investment, are met.

Our current national conversation is undeniably toxic. Maybe increasing the variety of accents in that conversation will help.

Thanks to Dr David Rolinson at the University of Stirling and britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk.