The workplace parking levy deserves more consideration

Written by Dani Garavelli on 29 March 2019 in Comment

How can local authorities institute big transport projects unless they are able to raise the money to fund them? 

Image credit: David Anderson

When thousands of school children took to the streets to protest against political inaction over climate change, their motives were almost universally praised, even if some took issue with their tactics.

Led by Greta Thunberg, the strikers were held up as the planet’s great white hope, though Thunberg was less than impressed with being praised by adults who couldn’t be bothered to lift a finger. 

“It’s sometimes annoying when people say, ‘Oh, you children will save the world. I think it would be helpful if you could help us just a little bit’,” she complained.

Here in Scotland, the disconnect between the public’s desire to see climate change tackled and their willingness to make any personal sacrifices to that end was writ large.

Even as the young strikers wielded their banners, the SNP’s plan to allow Scottish local authorities to introduce a workplace parking levy (WPL), extracted by the Scottish Greens in exchange for supporting the budget, was provoking an almighty backlash.

Although no WPL scheme has yet been drawn up by any of the country’s 32 councils, the levy was presented as a poll tax on motorists, with little thought given to the myriad ways in which it might operate.

This backlash was odd on several levels. First, the idea of the SNP as a centralising party has been a recurring theme of its (almost) 12 years in charge.

Now that it appears willing to hand some revenue-raising powers back to councils, it is being accused of recklessness.

This despite the fact those powers have been available to English local authorities for almost 20 years and no council is being forced to make use of them.

But it was also strange that, at a time when car use ought to be so high up the agenda, the Conservatives, Scottish Labour, the Scottish Liberal Democrats and some prominent commentators should dismiss it out of hand.

They talked incessantly about the potential impact it would have on the low-paid and shift workers (without considering how individual schemes might mitigate against this) and not at all about the potential impact on city planning and emissions.

Most frustratingly, critics said it would be wrong to introduce a WPL when the existing public transport system is so poor. But it’s a chicken and egg scenario. How can local authorities institute big transport projects unless they are able to raise the money to fund them?

Such was the knee-jerk hostility towards WPL, critics rejected it without looking at the one place in the UK where it has been introduced: Nottingham. There, the scheme has not been entirely glitch-free. In the early days, there were some problems with on-street congestion as drivers tried to avoid paying for their work parking space.

But what is beyond dispute is that the city, which invested the initial revenue in an extension to its tram network, has an integrated transport system that is the envy of the rest of the East Midlands.

This fact notwithstanding, Scottish Labour, which included the WPL proposal in its 2017 local authority election manifestos in Edinburgh and Glasgow, voted against it at its party conference in Dundee. Amongst its criticisms was that the SNP had done little research on its effectiveness (although that research is surely for the local authorities to carry out). 

Instead, it unveiled its own big transport proposal – extending free buses to under-25s with the long-term goal of a universal free service. Perhaps this idea is visionary; perhaps it would prove incentive enough to persuade people to cut down their driving.

But there was nothing in Scottish Labour’s announcement that demonstrated any depth of research. The costs of a universal free service were unclear, as was where the money to pay for it would come from. Nor was there any analysis of a city where this had been tried before.

In Tallin, which introduced free public transport for residents in 2013, the results were mixed. A year into the experiment, the use of public transport had increased by 14 per cent, but car use had only declined by five per cent. Meanwhile, the number of trips made on foot dropped by 40 per cent with many walkers hopping on buses.

This is not to say the potential benefits are not worth investigating, but there seems to me a lack of coherence in backing a free bus service, while rejecting a scheme with the potential to raise money to improve transport networks.

In the end, reducing emissions and tackling congestion will take cross-party collaboration not political one-upmanship. And it requires motorists to acknowledge that their reluctance to abandon their cars comes at a cost to the environment; a cost they may be expected to carry.

While the awareness-raising work of Thunberg and other young people is amazing, we can’t leave it to them to sort out our mess.

The sooner we – politicians and individuals – accept tackling climate change is a shared responsibility that may take a personal toll, the sooner the young strikers can get back to their classrooms.

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