This morning’s Daily Mail advises us that local councils are making huge profits out of motorists through increased parking charges. This follows a report from The RAC Foundation showing a £565 million surplus in 2011/12 by councils in England from on-street and off-street parking.
Eric Pickles, Minister for Communities & Local Government has been quick off the mark to criticise councils as “profiteers” while all of us who are motorists expect to be able to drive directly to the shop or office we need to visit and park our car immediately outside for as long as we wish and without cost. In some local towns (Witney and Kidlington) you can do just this and in Bicester the new Sainsbury’s town centre multi-storey car park offers free parking for shoppers, frustrating Banbury shop keepers where parking charges are pretty draconian although not as savage as in Oxford City. However, the main point of today’s media interest is the suggestion that councils are bolstering their budgets after 30% cuts in government grants to councils by hitting the motorist.
It seems to me that car parking charges serve two purposes:
- to reduce congestion on our over-crowded road network by rationing the scarce resource of car parking spaces; and
- to cover the cost of providing and policing parking places.
It is argued that providing free parking in places like Oxford City or Banbury would lead to workers driving their cars to work and filling up parking paces and making it difficult for shoppers and visitors to park. In Oxford City, with its medieval street pattern, there is much logic in this argument. In a market town like Banbury, it is harder to see the logic when Witney manages so well with free parking.
The RAC Foundation report lists ten councils with the highest parking surpluses and it is significant that eight of them are London boroughs, headed by Westminster, Kensington & Chelsea, Camden, Hammersmith & Fulham and Wandsworth. However, prominent at the sixth rank is Brighton & Hove where parking is notoriously difficult and expensive but hardly surprising when you remember it is run by the Green Party. Perhaps most surprising is Cornwall Unitary Council at the eighth rank, squeezed between the people’s republics of Islington and Newham. Cornwall is a horribly hung council, run by a coalition of Liberals and Independents. Here is a link to the RAC Foundation web site.
As for covering the cost of provision and policing, councils may not apply parking surpluses to a general budget deficit. This was clarified in the recent Barnet Council case. However, surpluses can be applied to transport expenditure. Of course, the reality is that councils have seen huge cuts in their central government funding which has represented their largest single source of income for far too long. They are unable to raise council tax significantly without a referendum that they will never win. Business rates do not go to the local council; they go to central government and are redistributed around the country to support poorer areas at the expense of wealthier ones. Oxfordshire receives back approx half of what it collects in business rates. Councils have few other sources of funding to top up their budgets and to maintain essential services so it is not surprising that they will push at the limits of one of their few sources of revenue – charging for parking.
There is also much confusion in those parts of the country that are cursed with two tiers (three if you count town and parish councils) of local government. Here in Oxfordshire we have that curse. The County Council manages on-street parking while the five district councils manage off-street car parks. They will have different policies and charging regimes nad may further confuse the poor motorist by pooling car park management in some areas. Perhaps most problematic is residential parking in Oxford City. People believe they have a right to park their car on the road outside their house when, in fact, they do not. They deeply resent being charged to have the possibility of parking somewhere near their front door if a residential parking place is free but, in many crowded Oxford streets, there is terrible congestion and just not enough space to provide for the parking people expect.
As a motorist, I resent the delight parking wardens clearly experience when they catch me with ten minutes beyond the parking I have bought in much the same way as I resent the speed cops lurking in a warm and dry camera van and zapping unsuspecting motorists guilty of exceeding a stupid and inappropriate speed limit. However, both are hazards of modern life that we all have to accept as occasionally inevitable like catching a cold or being mugged.