SPY cars helped catch more than 1,000 motorists parked illegally on zig-zag lines outside schools in Southend last year.

The 1,049 total – more than three times the figure recorded two years before – was revealed in a Freedom of Information Act request put in by insurance firmAxa as part of its Road Safe Schools campaign.

No separate figures are available for fines directly attributable to spy cars, as opposed to parking wardens on foot, but the totals appear to speak for themselves. In 2011, the year the cars began to be used, just 326 £70 fines were issued for parking in zig-zag safety zones.

The spy cars have been the subject of constant criticism ever since they were introduced in 2011 to clamp down of parking infringements.

However, Tony Cox, who was the councillor responsible for transport when the cars were brought in, thinks the figures show the hugely-unpopular cars are having a positive effect.

Tory Mr Cox, who lost his seat in last week’s elections, explained: “One of the main reasons the cars were brought in originally was to tackle drivers parking on the zig-zags.

“This was a priority for us and the fact they appear to be catching so many is helping get the message across that parking on the lines is a big no-no.

“The number being caught is very large and what I would like to see now is that figure come down again.

“Although the CCTV cars are catching people in the act, it still means a lot of people are still flouting the law.”

The town’s headteachers have also welcomed the news so many inconsiderate drivers are being punished for parking outside schools.

Pauline Lucas, head of Leigh North Street Junior School, said she hoped the figures would act as a deterrent.

Mrs Lucas said: “Parking outside schools is a real concern for me, especially in terms of people parking on the zig-zags.

“Sometimes it feels like it’s an accident waiting to happen.” 

While the spy cars seem to be helping to keep schoolchildren safe, complaints still abound about their use, with critics claiming they are merely used to earn money for the council.

In March, parents of children at Shoebury High School complained after being snapped by a spy car as they stopped at a zebra crossing to allow pedestrians to cross. At the time the council merely referred angry drivers to the official appeal procedure for those unhappy with their fines.

Totals have come down elsewhere

FIGURES for other parts of south Essex show fewer drivers being caught parking on zig-zag lines last year.

In Castle Point, where spy cars do not operate, only one driver was fined all year, while in other areas the number being fined decreased between 2011 and 2013.

South Essex Parking Partnership figures recorded a solitary fixed penalty notice in Castle Point – against a driver caught outside Woodham Ley Primary School in Rushbottom Lane, Benfleet.

In Basildon, which does have spy cars, 24 people were fined in 2012, but only six last year. Colin Riley, Castle Point Council’s representative on the South Essex Parking Partnership, said he was surprised by the figures.

The Victoria ward councillor said: “If I amquite frank, the figures do seem to be very low.

£I will enquire with South Essex Parking Partnership about them.

“We do take the approach though in the borough that we talk to parents and drivers about it, rather than handing out fines. We find this works well.

“Other councils may look at this as a money-making scheme, but we don’t.”

A ten-fold increase was recorded in the number of fines issued in Thurrock over the past 12 months.

Last year, 281 fines were handed out, compared to 26 in 2012 and 20 in 2011.

The increase coincides with the arrival of the borough’s own spy car, known as Pippa – short for Park It Properly, Prevent Accidents – last year.

In Rochford district, where the council doesn’t use spy cars, there was a small increase in the number of fines, with 18 issued in 2012 and 34 in 2013.