Is Scotland a rational country or a place more deeply wedded to self-harming and planet-destroying habits than we realised? The debate around the workplace parking levy (WPL) is proving instructive.
Scottish Tories were out campaigning against the “SNP’s Car Park Tax” this weekend – days after the widely admired strike by school pupils which demanded tough action on climate change, days after worrying news that 40 per cent of insect species are in decline and a fortnight after publication of evidence linking particulates from car, van, bus and lorry exhausts with heart attacks, strokes, infections and aggravated lung disease.
Cars in cities are worsening the health of hundreds of thousands of people with asthma and may be directly responsible for around 3,500 deaths in Scotland every year. Unless we simply don’t care, human behaviour has to change.
How strange then, that an incredibly modest measure to curb car addiction has resulted in such hysterical claims. Take the weekend Twitter exchange between Tory MSP Murdo Fraser and Nicola Sturgeon.
The First Minister pointed out that councillors in Tory-controlled Perth and Kinross Council are absolutely free not to adopt the optional parking levy if they don’t like it. To which the MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife responded: “Scotland’s First Minister seemingly unaware that many Perth & Kinross residents commute daily to cities like Edinburgh & Glasgow, where SNP-run councils could well impose this hated tax. Whose (sic) ridiculous & dishonest now, First Minister? #StoptheCarParkTax.”
Actually, Greens and progressive SNP supporters should be grateful to Murdo Fraser – in one short tweet he has highlighted almost all the reasons that measures like the workplace parking levy are absolutely essential.
Firstly, why on earth are regular commuters driving from Perth and Kinross into the heart of Edinburgh? The train journey from Perth to Edinburgh skirts round the Fife coast because the original and shorter cross-country route was torn up during the Beeching era to let the M90 been built on top – a short-sighted decision Murdo could be campaigning to fix with a new direct rail link. But even as things stand, Perth commuters en route to Edinburgh bypass the train at Inverkeithing and excellent Park and Ride facilities at Halbeath and Ferrytoll. Why? It’s 19 miles from Halbeath to Waverley Station. Even at an optimistic 45mpg, the annual costs of fuel and maintenance make the bus cheaper and (thanks to the queue-free public transport on the Forth Road Bridge) also quicker. There are already excellent bus routes from every park and ride into city centre Edinburgh. If there is still a perception that bus travel is low status, perhaps a £400 WPL is needed to nudge sceptical motorists into actually trying existing services out.
Secondly, how fair is it that car drivers in Perth and Kinross are pushing up the road budgets of Edinburgh and Glasgow without paying council tax there or contributing to services they use? The workplace-parking levy is a very small way to recompense these city councils.
Thirdly, if it is just a crude and ineffective tax on cars, why have Murdo’s colleagues at Westminster not repealed the workplace parking levy that’s been operating in England since 2010? Why does Scottish Labour oppose the measure that’s been a great success in Labour-run Nottingham? And why do the Scottish Lib Dems have a problem with WPL despite promising to implement it in their own 2000 and 2003 manifestos?
The workplace parking levy can work and the lives of most commuters, air quality of city streets, health of local residents and future of the planet will be better if the majority of able-bodied commuters finally abandon the illusion of control that’s encouraged by constant car use. Local authorities with large rural populations are unlikely to use the measure – Fife, Dumfries and Galloway and Aberdeenshire – have already ruled it out and the lowest paid already have a much higher use of public transport and a greater interest in higher levels of investment.
Folk may have forgotten the abuse hurled at the far-sighted transport convener David Begg 30 years ago when he introduced Greenways for buses and spent Edinburgh council money buying up sites for park and rides in neighbouring council areas. Now those facilities are nearly full – and that’s the issue modern cities must tackle. Parking at stations like Inverkeithing is generally full by 7am and over the summer, even the massive park and rides are reaching capacity as folk leave their cars and take buses to the airport.
So the debate we need is not whether public transport is a better bet than private car use in cities but which kind taxpayers should help to finance. Just as Edinburgh is thinking about another tramline, for example, Oslo is thinking about fewer, because underground rail and buses are the most efficient ways to move people around cities – not trams.
In fact, the long overdue policy shift on workplace parking is miniscule compared to bold transport decisions taken decades back by neighbouring cities in mainland Europe. Copenhagen is set to become Europe’s real eco-city because the Danes opted to reduce dependency on (imported) fossil fuels after the 70s oil crisis, keeping petrol and car prices high. That encouraged folk onto public transport and bikes and despite frequent changes of government, the policy has never changed. Danes actually prefer their public transport-oriented society.
Likewise the Dutch. According to Melissa and Chris Bruntlett, co-authors of Building the Cycling City, the Dutch invest €595 million, or €35 per resident, annually on cycling, which is 15 times the UK average. That looks expensive but more than pays for itself: 17 million cyclists save the health service €19 billion or 3 per cent of Dutch GDP.
And transport systems which encourage participation and connection also boost feelings of citizenship and belonging.
Meanwhile, Britain has gone in the opposite direction. Department of Transport figures show that the cost of car ownership and driving decreased between 1980 and 2016 by 20 per cent while the cost of bus and rail travel increased by 64 and 63 per cent respectively.
This is the tide Scottish cities must turn. The workplace parking levy is a sensible first step which may be mocked now, but will soon seem acceptable and quickly inadequate as the climate crisis deepens.