The ITV Tonight programme came to Horsham recently, for a programme entitled How Much Is Your Council Charging You?
The programme focused on how local councils are increasing the fees for the services they provide. This is either – depending on who you listen to – a direct response to being asked to freeze council tax by central government (this is what the councils would argue), or a collection of ‘stealth taxes’, a surreptitious way for councils to raise the revenue they receive while keeping council tax low.
We start off in the London Borough of Haringey, where people on the street are presented with facts about how the charges in their borough have increased. A woman living in what appears to be a rather large house finds it ‘absolutely ridiculous’ that the cost of removing a cockroach infestation has gone up by £17.
Enter Grant Shapps, the Minister for Local Government.
He is of the opinion that councils are simply failing to become more streamlined, and have responded to a cut in central funding by raising charges, instead of becoming more efficient at what they do.
We don’t think it’s right for local councils to use their tenants, and their residents, as cash cows. They need to realise that the way to come in on budget is to look at how you’re doing things yourself, how you’re operating as a council, not to go, ‘Oh, we’ve got less money from the Government, therefore we’ll go and tax our residents more through parking charges, or any other wheezes they come up with.’
Parking charges are a ‘tax’?
No doubt Shapps is fully aware that taxes are a compulsory contribution to state revenue, and that since choosing to park a car in a particular place is far from compulsory, parking charges cannot possibly constitute a tax. But our Minister seems quite happy to dabble, just like silly motoring organisations, in this kind of ill-conceived rhetoric, the kind that panders directly to the misplaced sense of victimhood the ‘British motorist’ labours under. Incidentally, this isn’t the first time I’ve noticed Shapps talking bollocks about parking; he evidently believes that free parking, everywhere, is the solution to all our problems, which may be the main reason why he is so keen to take Councils to task for increasing this form of ‘tax’.
The presenter, Jonathan Maitland, visits Barnet, where an increase in parking charges is apparently provoking outrage amongst local residents and shoppers. After letting them have their say, he subsequently makes the point that
Many councils insist they’re increasing the cost of charges not to generate revenue, but to improve our behaviour. For example, by increasing parking charges, fewer people will drive, meaning less pollution, and a better environment.
We then arrive in Horsham, where the council are – as it happens! – increasing parking charges, although not for these high-minded, behaviour-changing reasons. The Council’s stated motive is to fund ‘car park improvements’, although what these improvements are, Horsham District Council have not explicitly said.
The programme looks at how these increases, along with other rises in Council charges, are affecting the Henshall family, who live in Horsham.
We are firstly told that Debbie Henshall goes to the bank in the town centre twice a week, ‘but parking has just gone up by 40p’. These two facts are cemented together; going to the bank now requires Debbie to pay an extra 80p a week, because there is no other way of getting to the bank, without parking in Swan Walk car park.
She also goes shopping at the weekend, ‘where parking has gone up by 10p’. In addition, parking at the leisure centre, which is used by the family ‘at least three times a week’, has now gone up by 50p. Again, in both cases, the increased cost of parking is presented as somehow inevitable and unavoidable.
The programme claims that the Henshalls will now be paying £105 more per year as a result of the extra charges Horsham District Council has imposed. This appears to me to be an underestimate, because if you tot up these parking increases, they alone come to £124.80 per annum (assuming the number of trips claims to make Debbie Henshall makes remains constant throughout the year) and his figure, from parking increases alone, doesn’t include the extra costs of school dinners and swimming, also mentioned in the programme.
In any case, what I find remarkable is that Debbie Henshall simply cannot conceive of any other way of getting to the bank, or to the shopping, or to the leisure centre, without paying for parking, despite stating that she is ‘scraping by’, and no longer buys any luxuries at all, barely managing to pay the bills.
The local paper has picked up the story, revealing that the Henshalls live in Wallis Way, in north east Horsham.
I’ve marked on the map, taken from Cycle Streets, a journey the Henshalls could possibly make on foot, from their home, to the leisure centre, parking at which appears to form a large part of their weekly increase in costs. It’s just over a mile to the subway, marked by the red arrow. From that point you can pass under North Street, through Horsham Park, to the leisure centre, marked, approximately, by the red circle – around another five minutes walking.
This is not a long walk, by any standard of the imagination.
It’s a little further to the town centre, where Debbie Henshall has to go shopping, and to visit the bank – I would estimate that it is about ten minutes across the park from the leisure centre. Further, yes, but not an impossible journey on foot.
I said this is remarkable, and for the following reason. We have reached a situation in which a 30 minute walk into town is not just seen as impossible, or inconceivable; it’s not even considered in the first place. I don’t think Debbie Henshall is alone in thinking like this in Horsham; people will go on paying these ‘exorbitant’ increases in car parking charges in the District because they cannot imagine any other way of getting into town.
This doesn’t tell me that people who choose to use their cars are a persecuted group; on the contrary, it tells me that the use of motor vehicles as an everyday mode of transport in our towns and cities has been indulged, accommodated and facilitated for so long – and often at the expense of other modes of transport – that the notion of using these alternative modes has gradually been eroded, until it has now been stripped away. The County Times, which can normally be relied upon to be reasonably sensible, has an editorial accompanying this story, which runs
If people stop visiting town centres because the car parking is too expensive, the wellbeing of the whole are is put at risk. That is why supermarkets have never charged for car parking. They live in the real world.
The idea that out of town supermarkets, who apparently ‘live in the real world’ with their acres of subsidised tarmac, provide a model for improving the wellbeing of our towns is frankly ludicrous; editorials like this serve to illustrate how deeply bonded the misguided connection between unlimited and untrammeled use of motor vehicles and urban prosperity has become.
We are car dependent because the use of cars has been turned into the obvious, easiest and quickest way of travelling about our towns and cities. This speaks of a systematic failure at local and national government to address the problem. Unfortunately our current local government minister is – as this programme shows – seemingly quite willing to indulge the prevailing attitude that the car is the only logical and sensible way of getting into our towns, with his stupid talk of ‘stealth taxes’ and ‘cash cows’ in relation to parking charges, instead of trying to do something about fostering alternatives.
Horsham District Council might also start using the extra revenue they collect to improve conditions for walking and cycling in the town, instead of using it to fund nebulous ‘car parking improvements’. Setting aside the myriad improvements that could be made in the town to facilitate cycling as an everyday mode of transport (which could make it easy and pleasant for the Henshalls to cycle to the leisure centre), it is, for instance, quite appalling that the town has only one, much abused, zebra crossing – more of these around the town would be welcome. How about, in an enlightened move, using the increased parking revenue to make it easier to walk into town?