In December, Giancarlo Bonati, a DJ in Ibiza, made the journey by car to London to be with his mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer. During three months in the country he drove in and out of London 12 times, although never into the city centre.
But in April, without prior warning that fines were building up, he says he was left in a state of shock after receiving 12 letters sent by Transport for London’s debt collection agents, EPC. Sent to his address in Ibiza, they demanded €1,219 each, or €14,637 in total (£13,300) for his 12 drives. He appealed, but the fine went up to £20,000, with about £18,000 going to TfL and £2,000 to EPC.
“Of course, when you receive any fine from an official body it is a worry, let alone ones amounting to €22,000,” Bonati said. “It has created a huge amount of stress. The overriding fear was they [EPC] had the power to send debt collectors local to us in Spain and seize goods amounting to the €22,000. Either that, or put a lien on our property – we thought anything was possible.”
Bonati contacted Guardian Money in despair. “TfL negated all responsibility for matters relating to foreign-plated vehicles. We were told to deal with EPC directly. We appealed the fines with EPC, which completely ignored them and just increased the fines,” he said.
The good news is that after Money contacted TfL this week it cancelled all the fines, a result he says he “can’t quite believe … thank you, we are breathing a huge sigh of relief”.
But how could any driver end up with officially sanctioned fines of £20,000 for driving into London 12 times? The answer will strike fear into anyone who owns a large 4×4, or who is bringing their car into the capital from Europe. It also raises questions about the information given to drivers on the TfL website.
Bonati’s problem was not the recently introduced ultra low emission zone, which costs £12.50 a day for vehicles entering the central London congestion charge area. Instead, his car allegedly breached the much broader low emission zone (LEZ), which covers Greater London.
The LEZ is mostly aimed at articulated lorries and trucks which, if not compliant with the rules, are charged £100 a day. If the vehicle is from outside the UK and not registered with TfL beforehand, the fee is £200 a day. If it is not paid, it jumps to £500, then escalates to £750. On top of that, there are extra fees for the debt collectors.
But Bonati was not driving a lorry. He was driving his family car, a 30-year-old petrol-engined Mercedes Benz G300, pictured above. It is very similar to a Land Rover Defender and Land Rover 110 – popular in the British countryside.
TfL said some 4x4s are classified as commercial vehicles: “If a 4×4 is classified as a car, it isn’t affected by the LEZ. If the manufacturer and EU classify it as a commercial vehicle, it is. Any vehicle designed to carry goods, or more than nine passengers, is classed as a commercial vehicle (even if only used for recreational purposes) and could be affected by the LEZ.”
But Bonati, who acknowledges his car is more suited to Ibiza’s rocky terrain than the streets of London, meticulously checked the TfL website before his trip – which said his car was not liable for the charge.
“We had heard of the LEZ and had checked with the relevant TfL website before travelling to London. We did not want to be caught out by any congestion charge-type scenarios. Ironically, this is exactly what ended up happening.”
He showed Money screengrabs of the TfL site, which showed he could check by either registration plate, or vehicle type. As the car was foreign-registered, Bonati thought it more sensible to check by type. “We input our vehicle details. It stated: ‘You are not affected by the Low Emission Zone.’ Great! Or so we thought.”
If Bonati had clicked the “check by registration plate” button it would have warned him of a £200 daily charge. Intriguingly, the “check by vehicle type” button has been removed from TfL’s site since Bonati first logged on. Also, when Money entered his details early this week, it said he was liable for a charge, but later in the week it said he was not.
Helen Chapman, director of licensing, regulation and charging at TfL, said: “We’re sorry to hear of Mr and Ms Bonati’s experiences. Having reviewed the information from the relevant country’s licensing equivalent, we are now satisfied the vehicle is not subject to the LEZ, and we have now cancelled the LEZ charge. We urge people with vehicles registered outside the UK to register their vehicle with us before they travel so its status, including emissions, is confirmed before they travel. This is necessary as we cannot access information from foreign vehicle licensing authorities in the same way we can with UK vehicles registered with the DVLA. And, as in this case, there are occasions when it isn’t clear if a vehicle is affected by the LEZ.”
Bonati is still angry he was put through such an emotionally exhausting saga by TfL. “They now appear to have changed the rules and, most importantly, their website, which in future will stop other people falling into this particular trap,” he said. “But why were these fines not internally reviewed, particularly when huge fines were given, particularly when they were imposed around this admittedly grey area of the LEZ?”