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.

 
 
 
 

What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.


Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.