Parking up the wrong tree

Parking up the wrong tree

by Stuart Crawford
article from Monday 11, February, 2019

WELL, WHAT ARE WE to make of the Scottish government’s budget? More importantly, perhaps, is what are we to make of proposals for the “car park tax” – officially known as the Workplace Parking Levy (WPL). It has been incorporated into the budget by a craven SNP administration as a sop to the Scottish Green Party on which it relies to stay in power? 

The Greens, Scotland’s political equivalent of the DUP at Westminster, props up a government that arguably is short of both ideas and any real impact after nearly 12 years in power. An’ me an independence supporter tae!

Time will tell whether the WPL will prove to be a triumph or a disaster. I’m not sure (yet) whether it will be the SNP’s “poll tax on wheels” as others have suggested, but there’s no denying it’s pretty contentious. My understanding is that it is likely to take the form of enabling legislation via amendment to the Transport Bill currently transiting the Scottish Parliament. This will devolve responsibility for introduction of the WPL to local authorities, thereby allowing the government to do a Pontius Pilate on any adverse repercussions by deploying the infamous “it was a big boy and he ran away” defence so beloved by politicians and officials north of the Border.

Exemptions from the WPL have already been promised for NHS workers, but it seems clear that other groups – police officers, firefighters, council workers (are local authorities going to charge their own workforce?), the and military amongst others – have perfectly valid claims too. And, if so, why should the burden fall heaviest on the private sector?

The Scottish government is to blame for caving into the Greens, and had SNP ministers any cojonesat all they would have told them to take their WPL and place it in a very dark and shady place. The Greens, of course, are not the cuddly, grandfatherly party of Robin Harper and his Doctor Who scarf of old. Remember the “2nd Vote Green” slogan that was so effective way back in 1999? No, they have morphed into a group of angry, bearded lefties and swivel-eyed millennials Hell-bent on introducing socialist Nirvana to an independent Scotland. One where everybody, obviously, will cycle, walk and use public transport, and cars will be of distant memory. Well, I’m all for independence, but that’s not the sort of independent country in which I want to live.

Parking at NHS hospitals is already a burning issue. As everybody knows, all such charges were banned by the SNP-led Scottish government in 2008. All, that is, except for the three privately managed car parks at Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary, the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and Dundee’s Ninewells. To be fair to the current Scottish government, these contracts were let by a previous administration, and in 2009 the Health Secretary, one Nicola Sturgeon MSP, stated that it was not possible to put a figure on how much it would cost to terminate them but that “at the best estimate we are talking tens of millions of pounds” .

Time has moved on, of course, the contracts have less time to run now than they had then, and current assessment of the buy-out costs might be more encouraging.  Taking Ninewells as an example, the contractor there, Watford-based SABA Park Services UK Ltd (formerly Indigo Park Services Ltd), provides a large number of car parks across the UK on behalf of a number of organisations including railway stations, universities, and hospitals amongst others. At Ninewells it is responsible for 1,472 public car spaces plus 496 dedicated staff spaces. Charges at Ninewells are £2.40 independent of time spent in the public car park per day, and there is roughly 10 years of the contract still to run.

A quick squint at SABA’s accounts filed at Companies House as at December 2017 show that its profits increased by nearly 500 per cent in the last accounting year for which figures are available.  Assuming around 80 per cent occupancy over 360 days for the public spaces only, then income over 10 years at £2.40 per day would be around £10 million. But that’s gross income, not the operating profit.  The SABA accounts show that overall profits are around 6 per cent of turnover (after tax) so at Ninewells they might make around £600,000 profits after tax over the remaining term. Therefore you could make an argument that the lease could be bought for less than £1 million. So, not the “tens of millions of pounds” figure bandied about so loosely 10 years ago, and I would argue eminently affordable for the Scottish government to buy out if it chose to. The same may well apply to the Glasgow and Edinburgh hospitals whose contracts are with different providers.

There’s already a considerable backlash against the parking levy proposal and early signs that the government is prepared to compromise and make more exceptions than just to NHS workers. However, if the government really wants to curtail private car use and ease the parking problem then the best solution, as I have written before is to make the “free” bus travel currently available to over 60s available to everybody; in other words, make free bus travel a universal benefit like all the other universal benefits we enjoy.  The savings in NHS costs of caring for victims of road traffic accidents would more than compensate for the cost of making bus travel free for all, as my earlier article argues.

Luxembourgis set to become the first country in the world to offer free public transport, when all fares for buses, trains and trams will be scrapped from 2020 as part of a new environmental push. Elsewhere there are numerous examples of city or region-wide schemes, with Tallinn in Estonia perhaps the best known European example. 

Does the Scottish government have the vision and confidence to follow suit? I’m not holding my breath.

With thanks to Richard Marsh for his economic analysis. © Stuart Crawford 2019

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