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Workplace Parking Levy (Nottingham)

Volume 488: debated on Monday 23 February 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Watts.)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to debate an issue that causes great concern to the people of Nottingham.

If I had been reading the local and national newspapers, I would have assumed that the workplace parking levy was some dreadful tax being forced on businesses, that it was not supported by anyone in Nottingham, whether business or the local community, and that it was badly thought out and should be dropped immediately. In reality, that picture is a long way from the truth.

There has, in fact, been a good campaign. I congratulate the regional CBI, the Derby and Nottingham chamber of commerce, the national chamber of commerce and even Front-Bench Tory spokespeople, who seem to have swallowed the misinformation and exaggeration put across by some of the people opposed to the scheme.

But does my hon. Friend think that the opposition of the Conservative Front Bench and elsewhere is rather exposed by the fact that no Conservatives—either on the Front or the Back Benches—are in the Chamber? Perhaps it is too late for them.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, but that does not surprise me at all. In some respects, others should not be interested in the issue because it is something for the people of Nottingham; it is not for the regional CBI, or the regional or national chambers of commerce. People in Derby, Leicester, Manchester and across the country can forget about the scheme; if it does not work in Nottingham, I guarantee that nobody will bring it in anywhere else. Nottingham city wants to bring in the scheme and, to be quite honest, we would appreciate it if people who are not involved in Nottingham city kept their oar out.

The economy of greater Nottingham is the largest in the region. It is worth more than £11.2 billion and employs more than 300,000 people. Congestion in Nottingham itself costs £160 million a year and half that cost falls to business, which has been on to me for years and years—I am sure the same is true for my hon. Friend—saying, “When are you going to do something about this congestion?” That is why the first tram appeared in the city.

The problem has gone on not just for years but for decades, since I was a county councillor, and that is one reason why I am an advocate of public transport. It is not that I am anti-car—I want to use my car—but I realise that if we all use our cars at once, the roads will be so crowded that it will be a waste of time. I want people to have the choice of using public transport when they can.

The reality is that in Nottingham, 70 per cent. of congestion at peak time is caused by commuters. The proposal tries to address that. It looks at where the biggest problem lies. It is not, as some suggest, an ill-thought-out idea that has been put together on the back of an envelope. The city council has been looking into the matter for years. I can remember considering what we would do about the problem when I was a county councillor. The city council thought about road pricing, too, although perhaps not in as detailed a way as people would have liked. It rejected that, and came back to the idea of the workplace levy.

The workplace levy is attractive to us because of its simplicity. It is low-cost; it is simple to introduce; and it fits in with the timetable for other transport measures, such as phase 2 of the tram project. The levy is targeted specifically at commuting drivers, who are considered to be the main contributors to congestion. It is a scheme that fits the bill for Nottingham—but perhaps not for ever. I think that there will come a time when we will want to do something more sophisticated with fancy technology. However, that technology is not there yet, and the levy fits us at the moment.

The view has been expressed that the scheme is not about congestion, and that annoys me. It is suggested that it is just a stealth tax that the council has decided to introduce, and that it will not help to ease congestion at all. Again, nothing is further from the truth. The scheme deals with congestion in every respect. Let us look at what it does. It works on the same basis as other environmental schemes—the polluter pays. If a company has no workplace parking spaces, it will not pay any money. If a person never uses a workplace parking space, they will never pay any money. If a company has workplace parking spaces, they will pay for them. If they have more, they will pay more, and if they have fewer, they will pay less.

What will employers do? Some of them will decide, “Let’s get rid of some of these car parking spaces.” Great! That will mean fewer people travelling to free spaces in the city, and fewer people using their cars, which reduces congestion. Some tell me that it will not do that; I am sure that it will. Alternatively employers will pass on the charge to their employees. They will say, “Okay, you’ve got to pay the charge.” It is not much; it is 70p a place, which will not break any banks. However, if they pass on the charge, at least it will make people think, “Perhaps this isn’t the way I should be travelling to work. Perhaps I should use some other form of transport, if that is possible.” If they do, that will reduce congestion, too.

The main point is that all the money that is collected is hypothecated. The Government and the council will get nothing. In fact, the councillors are among those who will have to pay the workplace parking levy for the parking that they use in the city centre, which is effectively free. I do not think that many people in Nottingham will mind the fact that the councillors will have to pay.

I want to dispel one of the arguments put forward—the argument that the levy discriminates. Part of the campaign has involved trying to enlist the unions, and people have said, “This is terrible. It discriminates against shift workers; it is really bad for them.” Well, they have picked the wrong person to argue with if they want to argue that point with me. I started working shifts in the pits on my 17th birthday. I worked shifts for almost all my adult working life. Until I became a politician, I worked shifts all the time. In industry, when I worked shifts, I did not have a car. Nobody had a car in those days. We did not come to work in a car; we had the pit bus. It picked people up along the route—seven, eight, 10 or 12 miles away from the pit—and dropped them off at work. That is much more environmentally friendly than everybody driving there in their car.

Things have changed, but when I was a shift worker at Toton diesel depot, not everybody got there in their car. Some people did, but everyone who went in a car picked up two, three or four other people on their way to work. There was not a parking space for every single person who went there. Some places in the city—Boots, for instance—seem to have a car space for every two employees. If we take shifts into account, I suspect that they have more car spaces than employees.

That is not all; when I was a shift worker, I resented paying a pound, or whatever it was, each week to the man who used to give me a lift in his car, so I got myself a bike. I did the Norman Tebbit thing; I got on my bike, and I cycled to Toton every week, and cycled back. When I became really prosperous, I ditched the bike and bought myself a Honda 50, and travelled to work in style and luxury. After that, I did not always use the Honda 50. Sometimes, when I became even more prosperous, I used the car, but only when I had to. Most of the time I still used the Honda 50. It was cheaper, easier and got me around. Part of the problem now is that we are not giving people choice.

As I said, the money from the scheme will be hypothecated. It will provide Link bus services so that people who do not want to use their cars will be able to take a bus. The money will pay for new bus services, among many other things. Some of us—I do not know whether that includes my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen)—were taken aback by the recent flourish of opposition to the scheme. I thought there would be no more arguments about it, and that the people who were against it would shrug their shoulders and said, “Well, it’s going to happen anyway. Let’s forget about it.” I was surprised that the opposition has been resurrected.

The scheme is not something new that has appeared out of the blue. Nottingham proposed it in 2000. It was part of the city’s transport plan for 2001-02 to 2005-06. It has appeared again in the present transport plan. It is built into the package of transport proposals. It is nonsense to think that if something is taken out of the package, the rest will still stand. That is not how it works. Most of the transport proposals had the workplace parking levy built into them—for instance, the redevelopment of Nottingham’s railway station. A new hub at the railway station is expecting to get some money from the workplace parking levy. If there is no levy, there will be no hub.

Improvements to the city Link buses, which join up hospitals, universities and key employment sites, will not take place if there is no parking levy. The most important thing, to me, is the tram. Everybody has accepted that that is part of our package. Perhaps another funding stream could be found quickly, but I suspect not. I suspect that that would probably knock our application for the tram back a year or two years. Who knows what could happen in these times?

Nottingham express transit phase 2—the extension of the tram system—will join up 1,270 workplaces, to which 45,000 people commute. What a difference that would make to the city of Nottingham. There are a further 600 workplaces in Beeston and Chilwell in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer). His patch would benefit as well.

My hon. Friend is generous in giving way and modest, as always, about his own contribution to transport policy in Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, as one of the pioneers of the tram that we now cherish in our city. He mentioned the time that the proposal has been around. No one can argue that they have not had their say, or that they have not had a chance to raise questions. Perhaps the city council has been too generous in allowing too long a period, instead of getting on with the scheme more quickly.

I would not say that. I am always in favour of as much consultation as possible, and there has been plenty.

When people are asked, “Do you want an extra tax?”, anyone who will have to pay it will say no. It has been claimed that businesses do not want the scheme because so many of them have said no. If it was an unqualified question, the answer would be 100 per cent. no, but some people have the vision to see how the proposal will benefit business. NET phase 2 will bring another 10,000 jobs and more than £1 billion of economic benefit to the city. It will reduce traffic growth and increase journeys by public transport. It will increase demand for park and ride by 45 per cent. and take 2,500,000 car journeys off the roads.

The scheme affects only 15 per cent. of employers. That is the problem. Most people do not want to talk about it because it does not affect them, but those 15 per cent. of employers provide 80 per cent. of the car park spaces, so the scheme embodies the idea that the polluter pays.

I would like to say a lot more things, but I shall end by saying this. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North said, I was the original chairman of the steering group that set up the first tram. That project was a partnership between business, the county council and the city council. It was a private finance initiative that delivered everything that it set out to do—it was on time and on budget, and there was more patronage than expected. It was a success by any measure. Everybody who opposed the tram now thinks that it is a great thing.

If people had been asked whether they wanted the tram to be extended, they would have said yes; if they had been asked whether business should pay its part towards that, they would have said yes. In those days, business had a vision of what the future in Nottingham was about and of investment for the future. I hope that business is not now retreating into looking only to what is good for shareholders. If Jesse Boot—a great Nottingham business man, but also a great supporter of the community and of Nottingham—were alive today, he would say, “Let’s do what’s right for the community.” I hope that people in business now decide to do what is right for the community and for Nottingham—especially when doing what is right for the city is also right for business. All the Nottingham MPs, the city council, the majority of businesses and almost all the population support the proposal. I hope that the Minister will offer us his support in the near future.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell) on securing this debate. I recognise the passion with which he has put his case on behalf of his beloved city of Nottingham. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, he undertook work in many guises for that fair city, including as a councillor.

My hon. Friend has already expressed clearly in correspondence concerns about the proposed tramway extensions, the workplace parking levy and related issues. I should put on the record the support shown for the proposal, in this debate and through correspondence, by my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) and for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson).

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East will be aware that the Department for Transport is currently engaged in statutory procedures for considering representations both for and against the tram extensions and the workplace parking levy scheme proposed by Nottingham city council to fund its local contribution to the tram extension. My hon. Friend will have to forgive me if what I can say in responding to this debate is limited—only because we are in the middle of a quasi-judicial process, certainly not because of any lack of willingness to discuss the issues.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, Nottingham is important economically, which is why it has been designated as a core city. It is one of eight core cities recognised by the Government as the most important drivers of the national economy outside London. Nottingham city council has attached great importance to improving local transport and increasing the use of public transport, and is rightly proud of its achievements, which have received both national and international recognition. The existing tram system, Nottingham express transit—or NET 1, as it is known—has been in operation for almost five years and about 10 million passengers use it every year. It is certainly recognised as a success.

The Department is currently considering whether to give powers and planning permission under the Transport and Works Act 1992 for two extensions to the Nottingham tram system. My hon. Friend has indicated his passionate belief in the importance of those links, rightly observing that they would link residential areas, the ng2 development site, the main hospital and Beeston town centre, to name but a few places. I cannot comment on the merits of those proposals as I must be careful not to prejudice the decision that will be taken in the light of the inquiry inspector’s report, but let me assure right hon. and hon. Members that we will announce our decision as soon as possible.

Nottingham city council is proposing to fund the local contribution to the tramway extensions and reduce road congestion through a workplace parking levy. It might be helpful to explain that workplace parking levy schemes are just one of a range of measures available to local authorities for improving local transport and tackling congestion. Indeed, my hon. Friend took us on a walk down memory lane in describing his working experiences, highlighting the importance of car-sharing schemes as another practical solution in helping to tackle congestion. I am delighted that he got on his bike. As the Minister with responsibility for cycling, I think that that is an admirable cause; I sincerely hope that he has his national cycling proficiency test award. I will not ask him if he still has the Honda 50. That shows the other options that are available to any towns, cities or communities, or to any of us as individuals, as an alternative to necessarily using the car.

The principle of schemes such as the workplace parking levy is that a levy is collected from local businesses for employee parking spaces with the intention of deterring commuter traffic, and that businesses will then have the incentive to encourage alternative transport arrangements for their employees. Powers for local authorities to introduce workplace parking levy schemes were included in the Transport Act 2000, along with powers to introduce road user charging schemes. Similar powers were given to London authorities under the Greater London Authority Act 1999. Any revenues from such schemes must be invested in local transport—a point clearly amplified by my hon. Friend. Originally, under the 2000 Act, those revenue streams were to be hypothecated for a period of 10 years. However, in the Local Transport Act 2008 we changed that to extend the requirement for the revenue streams to be used for local transport throughout the life of the scheme.

Decisions on whether to introduce these schemes are a matter for the relevant local traffic authority, but schemes in England require the approval of the Secretary of State before they can be brought into operation. Hon. Members will know from the statement that I made on 11 December 2008 that we are consulting until 5 March on draft regulations for workplace parking levy schemes in general. As I explained on 11 December, a workplace parking levy order, which is required for each scheme, cannot come into force until confirmed by the Secretary of State for Transport.

Nottingham’s proposals for its scheme, which it hopes to introduce in April next year, are that it would operate across the whole council area, 24 hours a day, seven days a week; and if implemented in 2010, the charge per liable parking space would be £185 a year, rising to £350 in 2014. The city council proposes to provide 100 per cent. discounts for emergency services, as well as places for disabled badge holders and for workplaces where the number of spaces provided is 10 or fewer, which it estimates to be 85 per cent. of businesses in its area; that equates to my hon. Friend’s figure of 15 per cent. that would be liable. The council estimates that the revenue would be 1 per cent. of turnover for 95 per cent. of liable businesses and that 80 per cent. of the parking spaces are provided by the 15 per cent. of businesses that will be liable to pay the levy.

The Secretary of State cannot consider Nottingham city council’s order in the absence of an appropriate regulatory framework of specified offences and enforcement procedures. That is vital to enable consideration of whether the scheme would be enforceable. We will be considering carefully the implications of the responses to our consultation on the proposed regulations, both for the way forward on regulations and the city council’s scheme order. Again, we will announce our decision as soon as possible.

The procedures that the Department is following in considering the city council’s application are very similar to those that apply to planning applications. The decision-making process must be fair, open and impartial, and must be seen to be so. If it is not, it is open to challenge by judicial review. If the court decided that the legal principles of fairness had not been followed, it could well overturn the decision, leading to further delay, which I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, East would not wish to see.

Ministers and officials follow a code of practice and a code of conduct which advise, among other things, that we should not take part in a decision in which we have, or might be perceived to have, a constituency interest; nor should we discuss the case with any interested party. For those reasons, it would not be appropriate for Ministers or officials to discuss the details of Nottingham’s proposals with interested parties. I can assure my hon. Friends that all written representations will be taken into account by the Minister who takes the decision on the city council’s application.

I should also perhaps clarify that, in accordance with the ministerial code of conduct, the decisions on the city council’s tram extensions, in relation to both planning and central funding, and that on the workplace parking levy scheme order, will be taken by Ministers on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, because they might have an impact on his constituency of Ashfield. He will, therefore, exclude himself from the decision- making process.

Although we have yet to confirm exactly which Ministers will make decisions, in order to avoid conflicts within the decision-making process we expect different Ministers to make decisions on the Transport and Works Act order, the workplace parking levy scheme order and the funding decisions on the NET 2 scheme—that is, the extension to the tram system.

In conclusion, we recognise the potential. We recognise the passion with which the desire to move forward with the workplace parking levy and the tram extension is held by hon. Members in this Chamber who represent the city of Nottingham, and by others. We recognise that we need to have in place the proper procedures. We are moving forward with those procedures and we will make decisions as soon as possible. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity to explain the position.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.