David Behrens: The cars, the councils and a very clear case of highway robbery over parking charges

IT'S no secret that after years of funding cuts that have eaten away at essential services, councils are short of money.

Yet there remains a disparity in the way our local authorities generate and spend their cash – or rather, ours. This was laid bare this week by the revelation that the surplus from all the parking operations they run has risen by £165m in the last five years. A total not far short of £1bn is now flowing into the coffers of our Town Halls every year.

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The rules stipulate that such income must be spent on local transport projects. Yet, in the same period, road budgets have actually fallen by £400m.

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It is no surprise that parking revenue is increasing so sharply. Last year, it was reported that 93 per cent of authorities planned to put up charges across their districts, with some introducing Sunday fees for the first time and at least one slapping a £2 surcharge on cars with diesel engines.

It was, said Tory MP Robert Halfon, a war on motorists that had to stop.

This week’s figures, however, demonstrate no such trend. The war has escalated.

Council thinking has for years been predicated on the notion that motorists are the enemies of society, blocking the roads and polluting the highways with their noxious emissions.

But the principle does not stack up. If ever there was a time for authorities to be bending over backwards to encourage people into towns, this is it. High streets are crying out for trade. There ought to be incentives to come and park, not deterrents.

It has always been the official argument that public transport offers an environmentally friendlier alternative, but this holds true only if it is also more efficient and affordable – neither of which is the case.

And whose fault is that? We need not look much further than the corridors of those same town halls.

Let’s take the case of Bradford Council, which was supposed to be organising badly-needed upgrades to the city’s two main rail stations – neither of which currently amounts to much more than a kiosk. These have just been delayed because – according to the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, the body funding the improvements and itself an organisation of questionable worth – there was “insufficient expertise” within the council to prepare the necessary paperwork.

If there is one thing council officials are supposed to know about, it is red tape. In Bradford, it appears, even this is beyond them.

Nine miles away in Leeds, the council has been arguing for years about some form of tram or light rail transport system, yet it remains the largest city in the country without either.

The Local Government Association, which represents councils, claims its members are “on the side of motorists and shoppers” in setting parking policies which keep traffic moving and high streets vibrant. I’d like to know which streets they have in mind because in no town I’ve been to lately does the reality match the aspiration.

Nor are councils alone in picking out motorists as easy targets for highway robbery: nearly half the country’s NHS trusts increased their parking charges last year, with fees at Airedale Hospital in West Yorkshire, where a 24-hour stay now costs £8, more than doubling. This tax on the sick brought the Trust a windfall of nearly £1.3m in the last year.

For those visiting long-stay patients, it soon adds up. A relative of mine told me he had put more than £500 into the parking machines at his local hospital to see his stepson in the stroke ward.

For the authorities, it is easy money. Putting up prices arbitrarily is cheap and easy to do, and with no legislation in place to cap increases to the rate of inflation, public officials are free to go about their business in a wild west environment almost as cavalier as that of the car clamping fraternity.

This will not change without a wholesale re-evaluation of the relationship between councils and their customers, and in particular a recognition that public bodies are there to service the needs of the rest of us, not vice versa.

In the case of parking, this means embracing the car as the primary means of family conveyance, not an inconvenience to be sidelined by every new public transport initiative which, even if desirable, our officials are incapable of delivering.