A workplace parking tax is seen as a win-win measure by Edinburgh and Glasgow, cutting congestion and helping to fund better public transport, writes Alastair Dalton.
How much did it cost you to get to work today? If you travelled by bus or train, you’ll know exactly from the price of your ticket. A taxi ride instead will have also produced a fare to pay.
But what if you drove - as most people do. Do you consider it just the price of the fuel? Or twice that, to cover other costs like insurance and servicing? Or the UK Government’s approved mileage rate of 45p a mile?
However you calculate it, there’s also the cost of the congestion and pollution to which you are contributing, and the wear-and-tear to the road network, depending on where and when you drive. Who should pay for that?
These considerations have been thrown into sharp focus by the Scottish Government’s surprise plan to enable councils to charge for workplace parking, as part of a Budget deal with the Greens.
It is not known how much staff would have to pay, if the charge is passed on by employers, but it is currently £402 in Nottingham, the only place in the UK where it operates.
The proposal met with predictable howls of protest from business groups, followed by unions issuing dire warnings about the impact on their workers. The Educational Institute of Scotland, the country’s largest teaching union, even suggested it would contribute to making teaching less attractive and “exacerbate the current challenges in teacher recruitment and retention”.
Debate over the merits of introducing a scheme in Scotland has been limited by a lack of information about how and where it might operate. Commuters working in out-of-town office parks are already anxious about whether they might be included, and several rural councils have already ruled out introducing it.
However, the planned levy should serve to highlight that we need to talk about how we pay for using the roads.
What was once “road tax” - the old tax disc - has been for decades a vehicle tax, based on engine size and emissions. It’s also paid to the UK Government, who do not fund the upkeep of Scotland’s roads - the Scottish Government and councils do.
The first Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive after devolution ditched plans for a workplace parking levy in 2000, claiming it had no support.
Five years later, attempts by Edinburgh City Council to charge motorists to drive into the capital to cut congestion were abandoned when the scheme was rejected in a local referendum.
But when I revealed in 2017 that Scottish Government officials were looking again at a parking levy, Anna Richardson, SNP-run Glasgow City Council’s sustainability and carbon reduction convener, said: “The hard political truth is we need fewer cars - I do not think we have got any choice.”
The writing is on the wall for unrestrained car use in cities. Glasgow has already launched the first of four planned low emission zones in Scotland, which will see all but vehicles with the cleanest engines banned from pollution hotspots, such as city centres.
Edinburgh and Glasgow - the councils keenest on a parking levy - see it as a win-win measure, both helping to curb traffic growth while also generating significant income for public transport improvements. Nottingham claims its scheme has done both, and has made more than £50 million in seven years. A promising virtuous circle.