Spare a thought for Joan Murray. The 71-year-old widow battled with her local council for two years for an abandoned car to be removed from the road in front of her house.
Yet only last month, after Mrs Murray appealed to her local newspaper, the Blackpool Gazette, to highlight her plight, was the car finally removed — after 22 months that spanned the terminal illness and eventual death of her husband.
And she is not alone.
Growing problem: Freedom of Information inquiries to 50 councils by Rivervale Leasing found 21,106 reports of abandoned cars during 2021
Up and down the country, tens of thousands of frustrated householders are having to deal with a plight that goes largely unnoticed and unheeded — unless, of course, you are unfortunate enough to be affected by it.
Freedom of Information inquiries to 50 councils by Rivervale Leasing (rivervale leasing.co.uk) found 21,106 reports of abandoned cars during 2021, with the Ford Transit topping the list, followed by the Ford Astra and Focus, Vauxhall Corsa and Volkswagen Golf.
Top hot-spots for abandoned cars were Bradford, Milton Keynes, Barnet, Sheffield, and Croydon.
Official Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) figures obtained by the Mail said that during 2020/21 local authorities reported a total of 11,075 vehicles abandoned on public land in England alone.
However, this is likely just the tip of the ice-berg as it counts only those that are actually removed and destroyed by the local authorities.
Mrs Murray’s battle started in September 2020 when a blue Vauxhall car was left parked outside her home — with a hand-written note on the dashboard saying it had broken down.
Her husband, Michael, who had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, called Blackpool Council a month later and was told the car had been registered with the DVLA as SORN — which stands for Statutory Off-Road Notification.
This means that it is not allowed to be parked or driven on a public highway because its road tax is not valid, though it can be kept off the road on private land.
Time passed by but nothing happened — until Mrs Murray raised the matter with her local newspaper.
And then, almost miraculously, the untaxed abandoned car disappeared. It is not clear who moved it.
Call to action
The case highlights the frustration and difficulties residents and neighbourhoods face when trying to get action over abandoned cars.
Local councils are increasingly zealous about cracking down on ‘environmental crimes’ — which can range from putting your bins out a day early or putting the wrong waste items into the wrong recycling bin, to more serious fly-tipping and dumping offences.
But seek a solution to a two-ton rusting hulk of metal abandoned in a middle-class suburban street? Don’t hold your breath.
There’s an almost a comedic element to abandoned cars — rather like the book The Lady In The Van by Alan Bennett, the playwright’s true story about a homeless former concert pianist who lived in a vehicle he allowed to park on his driveway.
I became aware of the scale of the problem myself only when an apparently abandoned car turned up in our street in the leafy Surrey borough of Elmbridge back in May and has not budged since.
Now gathering dust, cobwebs, and detritus under its wheels, the blue 21-year-old Mercedes C270 diesel is legally taxed until next May, but its MOT certificate ran out in July. So what’s to be done? My own experience provides a snapshot of what is going on across the country.
First, I checked out the car’s basic details, which anyone can quite properly do, by entering the vehicle’s registration number in the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) online checker.
Then I visited the Surrey Police website — though the message is the same with the Metropolitan and other UK forces.
It tells us: ‘An abandoned vehicle is one which has not been moved or attended to for a long time. There may be visible damage to suggest a crash, or signs the vehicle has been stolen.’
However, they stress: ‘Do not take the law into your own hands by intervening, such as making physical threats or attempting to move the vehicle yourself. You may make the situation worse and even risk committing an offence yourself.’
The police Q & A check also makes clear that other than in exceptional circumstances, it’s a job for the local council, not the police.
The RAC (rac.co.uk) also advises: ‘You should only call the police if the vehicle is in a dangerous condition, e.g. it’s leaking petrol or contains dangerous items such as gas bottles.’
Tied in knots
So far the mystery MOT-less Merc has been reported three times via the council’s online abandoned car system, and I’ve had a series of automated responses saying that it’s being looked into.
But I delved further, asking Elmbridge Borough Council directly about the criteria they use to determine when or if a car is abandoned.
Typical of many councils, it said its Environmental Enforcement Team received 311 reports of abandoned cars in 2021 compared to 536 in 2020 and 343 in 2019, of which around a third (30 per cent) are confirmed as abandoned.
On average, it takes 14 days for the council to remove an abandoned car from the time of first reporting.
Like the police, the council said it followed government guidelines to determine whether a car was abandoned, noting this was likely if one or more key criteria applied, namely: no registered keeper; untaxed; stationary for a significant amount of time; significantly damaged, run down or unroadworthy (with, for example, flat tyres, missing wheels or broken windows); a missing number plate.
It defines ‘a significant amount of time’ as ‘probably at least 28 days’.
Amazingly, however, the lack of an MOT certificate — a car’s legally required annual roadworthiness test — is not taken into account when deciding whether a car is ‘unroadworthy’.
But won’t the police act if a car doesn’t have an MOT certificate? Not if it’s parked, say police. It has to be driven on the road to be nicked for a moving traffic offence.
So, as long as a car is taxed and parked, even if it’s legally, as opposed to practically, ‘unroadworthy’ it’s effectively immune from prosecution by the police, or of being deemed ‘abandoned’ by the council.
But RAC spokesman Simon Williams says action is needed to plug worrying loopholes: ‘Abandoned cars are a nuisance we can well do without, but getting them removed is sometimes far more difficult than it should be.
‘Just because a car is taxed doesn’t mean it hasn’t been abandoned, especially if it hasn’t moved an inch in months — and shouldn’t anyway because it doesn’t have an MOT.’