Why the outrage over the Workplace Parking Levy?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 11 February 2019 in Inside Politics

Plans for a parking levy dominated reaction to the budget, but why is everyone getting so worked up over car parks?

Image credit: Holyrood

To motoring group the AA, it was “not an exaggeration to say this will become a poll tax on wheels”. To the Scottish Retail Consortium, it was “yet another tax on firms which they can ill afford”.

To the Scottish Conservatives, it was a “ridiculous proposal”, with shadow finance secretary Murdo Fraser warning “this knee-jerk experiment has been dreamed up in a hurry, and there’s basically no detail at all”.

Apparently keen not to be outdone, the Lib Dems went further to suggest the plan might even damage the education sector.

As Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie put it: “Teachers in particular will be affected by this new charge from the Greens and SNP as it will wipe out their long-awaited pay rise. It will make recruiting specialist teachers even more difficult.”

A poll tax on wheels which would hurt business while also damaging the teaching profession. So what was this menace to society?

Car parks. The reactions, which came within hours of the budget passing Stage 1, were responses to plans for a Workplace Parking Levy – one of the Green demands on the Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay, in return for backing the budget – through which employers pay an annual tax to the council for every parking space they provide for employees.

Opposition parties and press alike screamed outrage. The Daily Mail swiftly launched a campaign to “scrap the SNP’s car park tax”. In fact, even the Finance Secretary’s spokesperson didn’t seem too keen on the plan, responding to questioning from the media to suggest that Mackay had “no choice but to agree to work with the Greens” on the policy after other parties had refused to enter budget negotiations.

It was easy to forget this was a small aspect of the budget. Mackay’s fiscal plans, unveiled last December, had included plans for extra funding for education, the health service and infrastructure, alongside a widening of the tax gap for higher earners north and south of the border.

In his pursuit of the Green support required to get his plans through, Mackay had then been forced to commit to cross-party talks with a view to developing a replacement for council tax, though any change would not be brought in until after the 2021 Scottish Parliament election, while also pledging to increase the plastic bag charge from 5p to 10p, and for the proposed teachers’ pay deal to be fully funded by the Scottish Government.

In outlining his revised plans in front of the chamber, Mackay had spent comparatively little time on the levy. As he put it: “There has been ongoing debate on providing local councils with the power to apply a levy on workplace car parking.

“That is a matter that is best managed at local level: it enables local authorities to manage congestion, air quality and local transport. Subject to the specific exclusion of our National Health Service and hospitals, the Scottish Government will agree with the Greens on an amendment to the Transport (Scotland) Bill that will enable local authorities that wish to have that power to exercise it.”

So why was everyone getting so upset? Environmental groups had been calling for the policy’s introduction for some time, with sustainable transport campaigners Transform Scotland launching a push for the levy to be included in the Transport Bill in June last year. In fact, similar proposals had been included in the Scottish Parliament’s first transport bill, in 2000, though they were later dropped by the Labour-Lib Dem coalition government.

And so, while the AA, teaching unions and opposition parties expressed concern, to Transform Scotland, the levy, alongside plans to ban pavement parking, offered an “important opportunity” to take action on congestion and pollution.

The scheme already operates in England, with a levy in Nottingham requiring employers with more than 10 staff parking spaces to pay the council just over £400 per space per year. Work from Transform Scotland suggests eight out of the ten biggest employers pass on the charge to commuters themselves.

With profits from the levies then invested back into public transport, the local authority says the policy has 100 per cent compliance, while raising £44m over the last five years. That money has then been spent on an expansion of the tram network and investment in the city train station and bus services.

Speaking to the BBC last June, Professor Tom Rye of Edinburgh Napier University’s Transport Research Institute said the policy had resulted in “significant” changes in behaviour, driving increased use of public transport and boosting walking and cycling.

He said: “At a time where local authority budgets are increasingly stretched and funding for sustainable transport infrastructure is limited, parking levies offer a clear solution to fund improved transport infrastructure whilst simultaneously tackling issues with air pollution, carbon emissions and congestion.”

And with air pollution in Scotland found to have repeatedly breached legal limits, air quality campaigners have been keen on the idea for some time. As Friends of the Earth Scotland’s Air Pollution Campaigner Gavin Thomson put it: “It is welcome news that councils will be given the powers to reduce the level of cars travelling into our towns and cities at peak times. This policy can be used to discourage car use whilst encouraging public transport use, with benefits for air pollution and climate emissions and so should be welcomed by all.

“In most Scottish cities, a large proportion of people don’t have access to a car. Public transport users are disproportionately lower paid workers or those seeking employment, so finding funding mechanisms that improve the availability and accessibility of public transport begins to address the fundamental unfairness of our current transport system.

“It was revealed this week, that seven sites across Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dundee have air pollution levels that are breaking the law, and endangering the health of the young, the old and those with existing illnesses.”

At present, details for how the policy would operate in Scotland are still sketchy, beyond assurances that councils will not be obliged to introduce the levy, while the government has stressed that NHS workers will not have to pay.

Part of the reason for that lack of detail is that the policy was barely planned. In fact, just last November, Transport Secretary Michael Matheson signalled that no preparations were in place to look at how the idea would work.

As he told the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, in taking questions on the Transport Bill: “There is no provision in the bill for that and we have not consulted on the idea. If there was an appetite for local authorities to take that route, I would certainly be willing to engage with them and discuss it, as it is something that local authorities should consider taking forward. As I say, if there is an appetite for it, I am prepared to have that discussion with them. However, there is no provision in the bill for that.”

So it was slightly unfortunate for Derek Mackay that he found himself having to explain the plan just days after the budget, during an appearance in front of the Scottish Parliament Finance Committee.

Facing scepticism from MSPs, the Finance Secretary began to suggest that other public sector workers – beyond those in the health service – might be given exemptions, assuring those watching that councils would “look very closely at local circumstances” when considering possible groups to exclude.

“Teachers are a very good example,” he said. “If it’s local authorities making the decisions, then surely those councils will think about schools.”

The Transport Bill’s passage through parliament will now be delayed to allow for a public consultation, but beyond that what will happen next is still unclear, with the SNP walking a line between maintaining Scottish Green support, to ensure the party helps it navigate the budget through parliament, and keeping car owners happy, so that Mackay stays in power long enough to introduce another budget next year.

In the same committee session, Mackay had been forced to admit he hadn’t undertaken any “individual economic analysis”, of the scheme, leaving the distinct impression that, despite backing from public transport campaigners and the fact the scheme already operates in England, a desire to win over the Greens was really the only driver of the plan.

As Mackay put it: “This is not a Scottish Government scheme, this is about the empowerment of local government. It was a necessary budget concession, because if there was no budget, the consequences were that a £42.5 billion budget for Scotland would have gone down.”

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