So councils are cash strapped? Not when it comes to parking income it would seem.
Between them the 359 authorities that run parking operations made an eye-watering £565 million between them in the financial year 2011-12, as our latest report shows.
Before all the councils start leaving comments, yes we realise this figure is before capital charges – that is building and replacing stuff associated with parking – are deducted, but even after you allow for these the total surplus is still a massive £412 million.
In a way the point is not that a surplus is made but why it is made.
Few drivers will have a complaint with a coherent transport policy which manages traffic and congestion through the use of parking fees. If there were no restrictions or charges then in many towns and cities there would be a free-for all on the roads which would be in no one’s interests, drivers included.
And if a ‘profit’, sorry surplus, is generated then this is allowed for in law as long as it is spent on a strict and limited number of things, all of which are essentially transport related.
What is not allowed for in law are parking charges that are set to generate revenue for hard-up councils facing cuts in central government grants and restrictions on the level of council tax they can set. We know it is against the law not just because it is there in black and white on the statue book but because a High Court a judge said so just last week.
According to Mrs Justice Lang, Barnet Council in London acted unlawfully when it hiked residents’ parking fees to “defray other road transport expenditure and reduce the need to raise income from other sources, such as… council tax.”
One nil to the residents of Barnet who brought the case, supported by the RAC Foundation.
It is true that there are several councils which do not make money from parking, but they are in the minority. In fact, that they made a loss might actually be a sign of a good parking policy where charges are kept low to actually encourage cars into a town or city centre to support the business of traders in the High Street.
But as for the rest there will be the suspicion amongst drivers that they are increasingly coming to rely on parking surpluses as a way of protecting other services.
This might be a laudable aim, but it is not a lawful aim. Why should councillors decide that the best way to break even is to arbitrarily tax one section of society?
The RAC Foundation would encourage all councils to publish an annual parking report containing their traffic management strategy and detailing what they are charging and why. If a set of charges has risen dramatically, why have they gone up? What is the traffic problem the council is trying to solve?
The irony is that these huge profits come against a backdrop of a decline in traffic volume because of the recession. Arguably parking charges should be generally coming down, not going up. And of course pigs might fly.