Working as a transport policy-maker in Whitehall and Brussels over many years, I saw some calamitous transport policy decisions. However, it is difficult to think of any – with the possible exception of HS2 – that, in terms of counter-productivity, irrationality and sheer political perverseness, tick quite as many boxes as last night’s vote by Brighton and Hove City Council to consider offering free parking in Council-owned car parks on Saturday 7 December and the three Sundays immediately preceding Christmas.
The proposal is presented as a way of boosting Brighton and Hove’s businesses, against a background narrative of a local economy being damaged by high parking charges – a narrative articulated by the business-funded Unchain the Motorist campaign. It is apparently being argued that offering free parking in some of the city’s council-owned car parks will bring people back to the city and support hard-pressed local businesses. That’s the theory, anyway.
It’s nonsense. The Conservative proponents of free parking argue that certain city car parks – like London Road and Norton Road in Hove – are seriously under-used. Whether that’s true or not, it’s fair to say that they’re not likely to be under-used on the weekends just before Christmas. On the contrary, anyone who knows the city knows that the central car parks are full to bursting at that time, with long queues extending into the surrounding streets for a space. The idea that there is spare capacity in the car parks, let alone on the roads, just waiting to be released on the busiest shopping weekends of the year is just fantasy. The very last thing that the city needs on those weekends is more cars, their owners lured in by the promise of a freebie. Every transport planner knows that traffic systems are at their least stable when operating at or near capacity; no more than marginal increases in traffic can lead to gridlock. In other words, what are no more than marginal benefits at most will be bought at the cost of a massive traffic risk. Will people caught in that gridlock return?
Instead, the proposal offers a subsidy to some car users – who would otherwise have paid the car parking charges anyway. In terms of its effects on businesses, there is no evidence that such a bung will do anything to support local traders. Any effect – and it would be interesting to see the proponents of the bung demonstrate, in rigorous terms, what that might be – is more likely to be felt by chain retailers, the sector of the economy least likely to generate long-term, high-value employment and which exports profits from the city rather than re-investing them there. The people who will be paying the costs of the bung are, of course, those who do not have access to or use a car – most likely to be those who are worse-off. In economic terms, the only rational way to see this policy is as a subsidy to the privileged.
The background narrative to all this is the claim that high parking charges are strangling the city economy. It’s a curious claim, not least in a city whose retail sector has largely avoided the devastation that has hit other towns. The evidence base for the effect of parking charges on local business is notoriously difficult to unpack, not least because effects depend so heavily on local factors like public transport alternatives; but all the hard economic evidence suggests the effects are small; and likely to be overwhelmingly less than the austerity-generated effects of falling real wages. Brighton and Hove, it is often forgotten, is a low-wage economy; it is ironic that Unchain the Motorist, who are being allowed to set the agenda, is made up of the same business interests most resistant to the living wage policy for the city. It cannot be reiterated often or forcefully enough: the politics of parking policy is largely about the outrage of the privileged. It is a debate where the voice of the poorest, most vulnerable and the most marginalised is drowned out by the revving of engines and the squealing of tyres.
And that is why the politics of last night’s debate is so perverse, so dispiriting, so abject. The nadir was probably reached when a Labour councillor, representing one of the most deprived wards in Brighton with one of the lowest levels of car ownership, argued for the suspension of bus lanes; a clear message to her bus-borne constituents that they should know their place and get to the back of the queue behind their economic betters. It was a potent reminder that the politics of transport policy, of the balance between private and public provision, is – almost without exception – a debate about economic privilege. It is about reclaiming our public space from the defenders of motorised privilege and making it available to everyone, and creating something more liveable and calmer and – literally – civilised as a result; an environment in which small sustainable job-creating businesses can thrive, as you can see across large swathes of mainland Europe. And you cannot begin to understand the implications of transport policy from a progressive point of view unless you have grasped these simple facts.
And, in the context of Brighton and Hove politics, it was deeply dispiriting to see Labour backing the decision for further work on free parking days. It seems to be content to allow the Tories – and their natural allies in Unchain the Motorist – to drive this debate. It’s also worth asking how the loss of revenue for this unfunded commitment will be made up, and why consideration was not given to having free bus travel days instead – something that would encourage people to travel without increasing traffic levels beyond the odd extra bus in a dedicated lane. As I have said before, there is a fundamental debate to be had about whether it is sustainable for the city to base its economy on attracting car-borne visitors, but allowing the vested interests peddling an unevidenced line about the impact of parking charges on the economy to dictate the terms of debate is simply not intelligent or rational policy-making.
And as a city we need to talk about sustainability, not gesture politics.