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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.