With many chapels having been built before anybody would have dreamed of the widespread use of the motor car, many may feel that having a church car park at all can only be a bonus. However, church car parks are often the cause of untold headaches for property stewards due to unauthorised third party use.
Managing Trustees contact TMCP with accounts of their struggles to ensure church car parks are available for those attending services and other church led activities. Typically unauthorised third party use is a problem where car parks are well located for the town centre or provide rare off-street parking for neighbouring properties and businesses. While wanting to show the Church as an inclusive and welcoming community, what steps can Managing Trustees take to prevent unauthorised use of church car parks and reserve space for legitimate users?
Carefully worded notices can go a long way to protect the Church's legal ownership and keep spaces available for those actually attending church premises.
The case of Winterburn v Bennett  EWCA looked at whether the owner of a fish and chip shop had acquired rights to park over adjoining land, the car park belonging to a social club. Throughout the time the Winterburns had run the fish and chip shop, the car park had been used by their delivery drivers and customers. Following the sale of the car park the new owner’s tenant sought to block access to the car park from the road leading the Winterburns to claim that parking rights had been acquired through prescription (long use). The case helps to show the power of signs. To claim the right, the chip shop owner had to show 20 years uninterrupted use as of right. Essentially they had to show use of the car park without force, secrecy or permission. As parking was clearly known to the club and permission had not been given, the issue at stake was whether the club’s two clearly displayed signs were sufficient to make the parking “contentious” and “under protest” i.e. not “without force”. The signs stated: “Private car park. For use of Club patrons only. By order of the Committee”. The Court of Appeal held that the signs were sufficient and the chip shop owners had not acquired parking rights. The land owner was not required to challenge those ignoring their signs through confrontation, physical barriers or threatening legal action.
The decision in this case has been reported as showing that such signs can be a peaceful and effective solution. It is therefore strongly recommended that Managing Trustees put up and maintain clearly visible signs clarifying that the property is private and not to be used by others. Consideration should be given to the number and positioning of the signs given the size of the car park, the number of entrance and exit points and its layout.
However, while signs may help to defeat claims that rights have been acquired and deter less belligerent car parking space seekers, how does this help to stop persistent unauthorised users and free space for legitimate users of church car park? Managing Trustees may want to consider additional measures.
2. Physical barriers
In some cases Managing Trustees install gates, chains, barriers or bollards across car park entrances to physically prevent unauthorised use. However, this brings with it the challenges of ensuring that those who you intend to use the car parks can still do so. Would the barrier be used all the time or left open during services, funerals and weddings etc.? Who would have the means to open it?
Some systems can operate using codes rather than keys which can assist in ensuring that everybody who needs to access the car park can do so without having to distribute multiple keys. However, this would still leave issues over how widely the code could be shared and in welcoming visitors.
It would be helpful to hear from Managing Trustees who operate a barrier with tips on how they balance deterring unauthorised use with the practicalities of chapel premises being used by many different groups and a desire to welcome and attract visitors.
3. Periodic closure
Some Managing Trustees find that third parties are adequately deterred if they lock their car parks when the chapel premises are not otherwise being used. Overnight closures could force early bird workers to find alternative office hour parking? Simply seeing the car park locked from time to time could be effective as a demonstration that the car park is private land and unlike a sign, physical inability to use car parking spaces cannot be ignored. The practicalities of this would depend on there being volunteers available to close the car park at the allotted times and the safety of those volunteers.
If you are experiencing particular difficulties, perhaps as a result of recent increases in on street parking restrictions or new developments, drawing attention to the plight of users of the chapel could be effective. Local people may not realise that the empty car park they see at 9am is in full use during office hours due to a myriad of users from the very young to the elderly and mourners at funerals who rely on the accessibility that the car park brings? Publicity highlighting the difficulties experienced by legitimate users of the chapel car park may help win the support and cooperation of the local community.
Managing Trustees often ask what others do to prevent unauthorised use and we would be grateful if you would contact us and share your experiences.
In contrast, some Managing Trustees have extra car parking spaces that they would like to make available to third parties under licence. TMCP are looking at producing a specific car park licence for use by Managing Trustees so please look out for this in future notification emails.
If you have any queries in relation to the guidance in this document please contact TMCP Legal for further assistance.