Parking tax: British cities to impose a tax on cars in a bid to reduce pollution | Environment

Councils across the UK are using radical strategies to reduce the number of polluting vehicles on their streets in response to the climate emergency.

Leicester City Council hopes a new workplace parking charge will improve air quality, fund public transport and encourage walking and cycling.

The power to levy a ‘workplace parking charge’ (WPL) from local businesses was introduced by Labor more than 20 years ago. But parking is such a contentious issue within local government that Nottingham is the only city in the UK to have a scheme.

Leicester is now set to become second: it is consulting on proposals to charge businesses with more than 10 parking spaces £550 per year per space from next year. It is up to employers to decide whether to absorb the cost or pass it on to their staff. It could raise £450million over the next decade to invest in a new fleet of electric buses, an extensive cycle network and station refurbishments.

Adam Clarke, Leicester’s deputy mayor for environment and transport, wants to use the workplace parking charge more widely to move away from car dominance.

Clarke said: “We are a historic city. The road network was built on a Roman footprint and it suffered from giving way to the automobile in the post-war period, which attracted more cars, straining the city.

“We have worked very hard to generate a shift towards cycling, walking and the bus. But it takes more than a change of stage, it takes a real leap if we are to meet our environmental, economic and health challenges.

The plans have been condemned by some companies, opposition advisers and auto organisations. Nigel Porter, a Liberal Democrat adviser in Leicester, said: “The current proposals are just stick, there is no carrot at all. If you were a nurse or a doctor, you might be there at different times of the day or night – there won’t always be a bus service for you. There seems to be an agenda [among] some members of the Labor Party…they want to exclude people from the road.

Several local businesses described the WPL as a stealth tax that would ‘impose a significant cost’, according to the council’s economic impact study, while one employer simply called the plan ‘crazy’.

Clarke said the council wanted to work with employers to find specific solutions to shortcomings in the transport network, including on-demand buses and bike storage.

Others expressed concern about the impact on low-paid workers. A spokesman for the AA said: ‘Because the WPL, when passed on to employees, is a local lump sum tax, it hurts more and disproportionately lower income workers.’

Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, is a champion of the model of the city in 15 minutes. Photography: Vincent Isore/Rex/Shutterstock

The council said employers could choose to charge higher-paid employees more than lower-paid staff if they passed on the fees. Leicester wants to emulate the “city in 15 minutes” model championed by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, where all essential amenities can be reached within 15 minutes on foot or by bike. It is a relatively compact city and a quarter of all car journeys are less than 2 km, with an average journey of 3 km.

Clarke said: “We know most journeys in Leicester can be done on foot or by bike, we know there are huge opportunities to improve the public transport network. If we can do this, we will be able to offer real alternatives and those who really need to use a car will benefit because there is less traffic on the road.

A workplace parking charge is an increasingly attractive idea for cash-strapped local authorities facing tough air quality goals in the next few years. Oxfordshire County Council is set to launch a charging zone to cover Oxford city centre, while Cambridge and Bristol have also recently expressed interest.

Workplace parking has become a contentious political issue in Scotland, where Edinburgh and Glasgow are exploring projects.

Labor and Tories in Scotland have come out strongly against the plans, with Labor transport spokesman Neil Bibby recently calling it a ‘commuter tax’ and a ‘brazen attack on workers’ wages’ .

Other councils have used clean air zones – where older, more polluting vehicles are subject to charges – to encourage sustainable transport. London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone has been in operation since 2019 and last year Birmingham became the second city to introduce a zone which applied to passenger cars.

However, plans for a clean air zone in Greater Manchester have stalled, with Mayor Andy Burnham demanding more government funding to help people switch to greener vehicles.

The Nottingham Workplace Parking Levy has been used to directly raise £83m since 2012, unlocking a further £600m in grants.

It had a slight impact on the travel habits of commuters, according to a academic assessment, which found that 8.6% of commuters gave up driving partly because of the tax.

Sue Flack, who helped deliver the Nottingham scheme and now works as a consultant to local authorities, said: ‘As far as we can tell there has been no economic blow to Nottingham and many employers will say they love Nottingham because of its good transport. links, although they won’t say they like WPL.

“They would rather have the transport and not the license fee but it doesn’t work that way.”

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