Roger Cox: ‘Wild and not-so free, could beach car parking charges be the stupidest tax yet?’
FOR a while there it looked as if this week’s column was going to be about extreme ice climbing.
Then I had the option of doing something on wingsuit flying – the near-suicidal activity whereby persons of questionable sanity fling themselves out of planes and off the tops of mountains dressed as giant flying squirrels. In the end though, I binned both those ideas and went with something a little less glamorous instead: car parking.
A few weeks ago, an email pinged into my inbox from Sam Christopherson, head honcho of Coast to Coast surf school in Dunbar. “Just wondered if you could get this in the paper,” he wrote, referring me to a link to a petition against the proposed introduction of car parking charges at beaches in East Lothian. My first impression: there’s absolutely no way in hell I’m going to be able to squeeze an 800-word column out of car parks. Second impression: even if I could, I’m pretty sure nobody would want to read it.
So I emailed Sam back, thanked him for the heads-up, but pointed out that, in this age of austerity, car parking charges might seem a bit of an odd thing for me to be getting on my high horse about.
I figured that, what with the Buller boys in Downing Street threatening to take housing benefit away from all oiks under the age of 25, it would be hard to drum up much sympathy for people with enough expendable income to be able to afford surfboards and kayaks (and cars), just because they were getting taxed a couple of quid for going to the beach. But the more I thought about it, and the more I read about it, the more I got the nagging feeling that this was something worth writing about after all.
The story so far goes like this... The plan to introduce coastal car parking charges was first put forward by the then Labour-run East Lothian Council in 2007, but it was scrapped by an incoming SNP-Lib Dem coalition the following year. Then in 2009, said coalition decided the charges weren’t such a bad idea after all and tried to have them introduced, but a public consultation process showed locals were strongly against, so the scheme was canned. In 2010, the same SNP-Lib Dem council tried again, only without a public consultation this time, but further pressure from beach-users caused them to back down. And now a new council, under somewhat ideologically nonsensical Labour-Tory stewardship, is having yet another go. They want to charge £2 a day. Again, locals are opposed. Sharper readers may have detected a pattern emerging here.
As it turns out, it’s not just surfers and kayakers who are upset. Hikers and runners in the area are hopping mad, and people who walk their dogs on the beach every day are furious – you would be too if you suddenly realised it was going to cost you an extra £700 a year to keep Fido in the manner to which he’d become accustomed. There was even a case study in the Edinburgh Evening News the other week about an elderly birdwatcher who faced having to give up one of her favourite pastimes because she wouldn’t be able to stand the extra cost.
The proponents of this scheme claim it will raise as much as £1 million a year, and who knows, perhaps it will. But while councillors fixate on the monetary value of these parking fees, they somehow remain blind to their inherent lack of logic. Charges levied on the public by government bodies are often blunt instruments, but they don’t have to be. Cigarettes, for example, are taxed heavily in an attempt to make them less attractive to moody teenagers with limited pocket money. Moody teens then take up XBox 360 instead of smoking, avoid developing lung cancer, save the NHS a bundle and everyone’s a winner. By contrast, a tax on using the beaches of East Lothian will discourage people from doing the kinds of things any responsible council should surely be encouraging. If the tax on cigarettes could be described as a smart tax, then I’m afraid this beach tax can only be described as a very stupid one. Could East Lothian Council perhaps consider alternative ways of raising their million pounds? Perhaps by charging people money for doing things they shouldn’t be doing? Surely even the fine, upstanding residents of North Berwick and Dunbar must misbehave from time to time...
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 26 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: South