Jackson Carlaw was in full thundering mood during First Minister’s Questions, declaring the SNP Government ready to fleece hard-working Scots by introducing an “unworkable” car park tax.
The Scottish Tories’ stand-in leader would have further cause to choke on the proposal after Edinburgh council leader Adam McVey not only offered support for the idea, but said employers should pass on the estimated £400 a year levy to their employees.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney, deputising for Nicola Sturgeon who is in the US, defended the move as empowering local government and accused Mr Carlaw of hypocrisy. Curiously, and perhaps mistakenly, he failed to shore up his response by drawing attention to the one example in Britain where a car park levy not only operates, but does so successfully.
Much of the criticism, led by the Tories and backed by the LibDems, focused on the lack of detail and serious doubts about whether such a tax could operate at all.
Yet Nottingham council introduced a workplace parking levy in 2010 and it has drawn praise from transport professionals and analysts as a model of success by acting as an incentive for employers to manage their workplace parking provision.
The charge per parking space from April will be £415 and the money raised so far has provided funding for major transport infrastructure initiatives. It helped to fund extensions to the existing tram system, as well as the redevelopment of Nottingham Station. It also supports the bus network.
Employers, rather than employees, are responsible for paying any WPL charge, although employers can choose to reclaim part or all of the cost of the WPL from their employees. VAT is not payable by employers to Nottingham City Council on the WPL charge. Any parking charges an employer introduces for its employees are, however, subject to VAT.
English councils have had the power to impose the tax for about 20 years, but so far only the Labour-led Nottingham council has chosen to do so. It came 20 years after planning controls across Britain were loosened, permitting new out of town shopping developments, not surprisingly followed by significant growth in car ownership and use.
Nottingham is a medium-sized city of some 300,000 people (though the wider urban area is over 700,000 compared to 465,000 in Edinburgh and 600,000 in Glasgow) and Stephen Joseph, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport has pointed out that it now has some of the highest levels of public transport use outside London.
Like Edinburgh it retained its ownership of the local bus company, Nottingham City Transport. Also like Edinburgh it has introduced a tram network.
As in Scotland just now the car park levy, one of the first of its kind in the world, was controversial and it took the city council nearly 10 years to get this through, following the Transport Act 2000 promoted by John Prescott which authorised such levies in principle. Nottingham ended up having to employ lawyers to write the secondary legislation themselves.
It faced constant battles with the city’s biggest employers and the chamber of commerce, and constant lobbying from national business groups like the CBI, who tried to persuade ministers to set aside any localist tendencies they might have and veto the plans as a terrible business-bashing precedent. There were forecasts of businesses deserting Nottingham for other cities.
Despite all this, the levy went live in 2012, after a period requiring employees to license their parking spaces. All employers with 11 or more spaces had to pay £288 per year per space.
Crucially, the revenue from this scheme has contributed towards two further tram lines, the upgrade of the main railway station, support for the “Linkbus” network of non-commercial bus services, and a business support package of travel planning and parking management.
By 2016 public transport use had risen above 40% of journeys in the city, a high percentage for the UK.
All the predictions of loss of jobs and businesses have proved unfounded with statistics showing jobs growth in Nottingham has been faster than other cities, while traffic congestion has fallen. It also helped Nottingham reach its carbon reduction target earlier than planned.
Cynics in Edinburgh will say the council has an eye on the levy as a way of wreaking revenge on residents who rejected the proposed congestion charge. The difference with a car park levy is that it does not require city-wide support as was the case with the referendums in Edinburgh and Manchester.
As of 2016 Nottingham has been generating around £9m a year, drawing interest from other cities such as Oxford and Cambridge.
The Scottish Tories and LibDems may be rightly concerned at the mounting number of new taxes being stealthily introduced by the SNP government, but the level of rebuke handed out on the car park levy was overdone and was more a case of playing to the populist gallery rather than drawing on the available research and evidence.