When Kandasamy Nirmalan decided to make a stand against people using his London forecourt as a free car park he had no idea how much potential damage it would do to his business. But it resulted in a customer being ordered to pay £465, staging a sit-in and motorists being urged to boycott all BP sites.
The independent retailer, who runs Rainbow Service Station in Walthamstow, was fed up with people who were not customers leaving their vehicles on the site, sometimes for an entire day.
So when he was approached by clamping firm Citywatch Parking Enforcement Ltd, he thought the most sensible thing for his business would be to take it up on its offer.
According to Kandasamy, the company offered to clamp any offending vehicles free of charge to his business - with the motorist paying the fine. He said he was also told he would be informed before any vehicle was clamped on his forecourt.
== Shock to the system ==
But Kandasamy had a nasty shock awaiting him after signing up for the service last December.
He said: "Citywatch said they were going to ask and check with us before clamping a vehicle - the thing is, they talk nicely and then you sign up. It’s only after you sign up that they say it’s in the contract that they don’t have to ask. I think they’re robbing the customers.
"Also, verbally they told me it would be a £160 fee to remove the clamp. In effect, it’s £465 as they take the vehicle away. They’re conning us. And I think they’re mainly targeting forecourt traders."
Kandasamy said that luckily the contract he signed had just a 30-day notice period.
And almost immediately upon signing, he changed his mind about using the company and cancelled the contract - it finally ran out on February 15.
However, just two weeks before the end of the contract, Citywatch clamped a vehicle on Kandasamy’s forecourt - but unfortunately it targeted a genuine customer’s car.
According to local newspaper, the Waltham Forest Guardian, customer Nicholas Taylor parked his car in the BP petrol station and went into the site’s shop to buy a sandwich and a chocolate bar.
But when he returned a few minutes later the car had been clamped and he was ordered to pay £465 to have it released - or watch it be towed away.
Taylor refused to pay and decided to stage a sit-in protest in his car. He was so incensed he refused to move for eight hours - and only agreed to pay when his wife intervened.
Meanwhile, he said Citywatch threatened to increase the fine by £160 for every extra hour he was there. The father-of-two told the newspaper: "My solicitor said I should probably leave because I could incur extra charges running into thousands of pounds.
"But Citywatch climbed down from the extra £160 an hour they had threatened to charge me for sitting there. In the end we left. But this is not the end."
At the time, Taylor revealed that he planned to take the battle with Citywatch to the courts.
Kandasamy was furious with Citywatch about the incident - especially as he claimed he didn’t realise when he signed with the company that they implemented immediate clamping.
He said he was relieved when the contract ended.
But even this final move wasn’t enough to put off the clampers at Citywatch.
Kandasamy explained: "I finished my contract on February 15, and on the 16th Citywatch turned up on the forecourt. "I couldn’t believe it, I had to tell them to go away."
Kandasamy said that only one customer was clamped on his site but he knows of other retailers in the area using similar schemes.
Kandasamy added: "My main concern is that I don’t want other retailers to get signed up with them. I just want to warn other people: don’t sign up with Citywatch.
"The thing is, at the end of the day, we are losing business because of the clamping - and they are making money."
Citywatch declined to comment. Last month the company found itself in the spotlight when it was investigated by the BBC Watchdog programme after viewers complained about its clamping practices.
The drama at Rainbow Service Station highlighted a growing problem in the industry over how to control parking on forecourts without penalising genuine customers. Kandasamy admitted he still needed a solution to the parking problem because there was only room for about five or six customer cars to park at his site.
He said he was now looking into a number of different clamping companies but wanted to find one that would allow for a 15 or 20 minute delay before clamping vehicles to allow customers to visit the shop.
== Tricky situation ==
A BP spokeswoman said: "Rainbow Service Station is owned and run by an independent operator who is free to make his own arrangements and agree contracts with companies for services on his forecourt.
"BP only supplies the fuel and pump and site branding. The operator entered into this agree-ment in an attempt to ensure that genuine customers can park on site."
She added that BP had tried a number of things to make car parking at its company-owned sites easier for genuine customers who use the facilities, saying that on occasions the oil company had been forced to turn away tankers delivering fuel at sites because they couldn’t get to the pumps.
She added: "Unfortunately some genuine customers did get caught up in the confusion, and we apologise for that."
Meanwhile, she said the BP-owned site in High Road, Leyton, which is near Rainbow Service Station, had also been using Citywatch. However, the contract was being terminated as the site "was not authorised to make that commitment".
She was not aware of any other BP company-owned sites using clamping companies.
Other retailers added that they had also experienced problems in this area of business.
== Wrong message ==
Mark Wilson, operations director at the Fraser Group, said the company - a former Forecourt Trader of the Year winner - had its own way of dealing with the issue and thought clamping was quite an extreme measure.
He said: "We don’t use clamping at any of our sites - I think it sends out the wrong message. But we do have problems with people leaving their cars at some of our sites, sometimes they even leave them there overnight.
"We just choose to police it ourselves and if someone leaves their vehicle on the forecourt overnight we leave a polite notice on their windscreen asking them not to do it again. It’s not a major issue for us, the site where it’s most prolific is probably Brize Norton.
"It can get very congested on the site but it’s something that we choose to deal with in our own way."