The subject of parking has been very much in the news in the past week or so, partly due to the publication of RAC Foundation data on the amount of money being made from parking by English local authorities, and partly due to a steady stream of parking-related pronouncements from the secretary of state for communities and local government, Eric Pickles.
Indeed, the subject of parking, and specifically the revenue generated by it, made the front page of two national dailies, The Times and The Daily Mail, on 1 August. “£500m tax on drivers by greedy town halls,” was the banner headline on page one of the latter paper. “Parking charges soar as councils flout law,” The Mail added. “Motorists were urged yesterday to go to war on councils who use parking fees as a massive moneyspinner… Motoring groups said residents should unleash a ‘flood of letters’ to councils in a campaign to have the legality of the fees tested in court.”
Mr Pickles’ take on the large surplus from parking being generated by English local authorities was to blame the councils… and the previous Labour Government. “This Government has scrapped the last administration’s Whitehall rules which told councils to hike up parking charges and adopt aggressive parking enforcement,” he was quoted by the Press Association as saying. “But councils aren’t listening, and local shops and hard-working families are suffering as a result.”
The following day, Mr Pickles then weighed in with an assault on the Local Government Association, and specifically its online budget calculating tool ‘You Choose’. “I am very concerned that the LGA is actively encouraging councils to break the law, as well as exposing councils to potential legal action,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “The LGA should remove this tool immediately. I believe such stealthy activity reinforces the need for a clampdown on dodgy parking practices by over-zealous council officers.”
Barely 24 hours later, Mr Pickles had yet another parking-related pronouncement for the media, when he announced that new Government guidance would allow homeowners to rent out their driveways without having to apply for planning permission for a change of use. “Councils should be welcoming common sense ways that help hard-working people parking easier and cheaply and for families to make some spare cash,” he said, in a familiar tone. “Councils shouldn’t be interfering in an honest activity that causes no harm to others, unless are there serious concerns.”
Interspersed with Mr Pickles’ steady stream of parking pronouncements, several heavyweight newspaper columnists took the plunge into parking. “Britain’s parking regime borders on criminal insanity,” Richard Littlejohn told Daily Mail readers on 29 July, for example. “It is part of this country’s vindictive and all-pervading punishment culture… Most parking restrictions are aimed purely at raising revenue.
“Council taxes are exorbitant enough,” Littlejohn’s piece continued. “Why the hell should anyone have to pay extra to park outside their own home?”
An alternative point of view was then presented in The Guardian by Simon Jenkins, who laid the blame for the current situation firmly at the feet of the Government in Westminster, not local authorities, on 1 August. “Conservatives like Eric Pickles espouse freedom for local councils but they have done nothing to show they mean it,” he began. “Parking fines have become a local super-tax. It is what the rich pay for property taxes being kept so low. Meters and fines are the last serious gusher of ‘uncapped’ local revenue… Car drivers are low-hanging fruit, ripe for picking.
“That a Treasury surplus, as from property or bank shares, should be considered a ‘good deal’ for the taxpayer, but a local surplus should be a ‘cash cow for officers’ indicates the present state of government priorities,” Mr Jenkins added. “Pickles has won plaudits from the Treasury for being a good cutter, albeit by slashing local grants and thus shifting the political pain onto local politicians. When councils have the impertinence to decide how to use their own money, he does not like it.”
Mr Jenkins’ conclusion was that the current restrictions on what local authorities are allowed to spend parking revenue on should be loosened. “Discretion should be widened,” he said. “The relevant 1984 Traffic Act, supposedly hypothecating parking meters to road spending, should be suspended, not enforced. Councils should fix their own parking policies and defend them to their electorates.”