The notion that Birmingham could one day have a workplace parking levy (WPL) similar to Nottingham’s has ruffled a few feathers in the city’s business community. The concept was set out as a possible option earlier this month in a new ‘green paper’ published for consultation by Birmingham City Council. The council’s Birmingham Mobility Action Plan (BMAP), which considers how the city’s transport infrastructure is to be developed in the next two decades, and also how this development is going to be paid for, says, for example, that Nottingham’s WPL scheme “started off as a highly contentious scheme” but then adds that “as the scheme has progressed and matured, and as tangible by-products of the charge in the form of physical infrastructure on the ground has been delivered (two additional metro lines and the upgrade of the city’s rail station), so attitudes to it have softened”.
A softening of attitudes towards Nottingham’s WPL was not greatly in evidence at a meeting of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Business Transport Group held shortly after the publication of the BMAP, however. Speaking at the meeting, George Cowcher, CEO of the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Chamber of Commerce, said the main concern of businesses in the city was that, in terms of inward investment in the long term, the levy could do more harm than good.
Cowcher conceded that few major employers have moved out of Nottingham as a result of the imposition of what he terms “the workplace parking tax” for the fairly obvious reason that companies that have invested in premises and machinery and people can’t just up sticks and move, but he believes the imposition of the WPL has had an impact on inward investment.
Although keeping an open mind about the WPL and speaking on behalf of members, Cowcher said he was not happy with Nottingham City Council and its role in bringing in the WPL, not least because of his belief that the council has moved the goalposts at least once since the WPL was first mooted, in terms of what the scheme is supposed to be for. “The idea was originally sold as a purely traffic reduction measure [as seems to be case in the Birmingham green paper – ed] because it would make employers keen to offer less commuter parking,” he observed. “But the council then changed its tack and started saying that it was introducing the WPL because it wanted to significantly improve public transport and therefore we need this in order to access more government funding.”
This change of course rather backfired, however, as it made the business community’s early opposition more fierce, due to the simple fact that many of the biggest payers get the least benefit from the public transport improvements funded by the levy.
What this means is that a city centre employer with a relatively small number of parking spaces for its employees pays a relatively small amount of WPL but benefits hugely from improvements to public transport, whereas an employer in one of the industrial estates or science parks on the outskirts of the city pays a large amount of WPL because it has a large car park – but the reason it has a large car park is because it needs one, because many of Nottingham’s industrial estates have absolutely no public transport provision at all! Here Cowcher estimates that 20% of the city’s employers are currently paying 90% of the levy.
The practical effect of imposing the WPL on this latter type of employer has already become manifest, Cowcher added, and it hasn’t been the one the council envisaged. “It has had a big displacement effect on car parking as employers have passed on the tax to their employees, which has led to increased congestion on the industrial estates as people started parking on the roads,” he said. “The city council has therefore had to go through this big exercise of adding extra yellow lines on the roads – but at what cost?”
Cowcher concluded his presentation by observing that the introduction of the WPL has hit some of Nottingham’s largest employers hard. “Boots [the city’s largest single employer, which is liable for over £1m per annum in WPL] has actually had to employ a parking charges officer just to keep on top of this,” he noted.
He also suggested that Nottingham City Council could have done more to consult with local businesses before imposing the WPL – a lesson for Birmingham, perhaps – and should have considered other options, including possibly a city centre congestion charge which might have been fairer. “Indeed, road pricing would have been better, if traffic reduction had been the major aim,” he said.
“Although the Chamber is supportive of the tram and station development as two top transport priorities for local businesses in Nottingham, the Chamber and the majority of its members remain opposed to the WPL,” he added. “However, the focus now is on working with the city council to help mitigate the impact the levy will have on them.”