Christmas parking in Brighton and Hove: this is about politics, not economics

I have already blogged about Brighton and Hove City Council’s vote (and since then a reduced version of my blogpost has appeared in the Brighton Argus).  Subsequent developments have been instructive about the state of Brighton and Hove politics,  if possibly less so about the issues of congestion and economics that lie at the heart of the issue. It’s worth unpacking some of the issues around the proposal, and in particular the paper prepared by the administration for tomorrow’s Policy and Resources Committee.

Just a reminder: the proposal passed at the Council meeting was that it should investigate offering free parking in some council car parks on the Sundays immediately preceding Christmas.  The immediate response from the administration was that the cost could be of the order of £300k, which is what prompted my original response – that if this kind of money is available, it would be better spent on buying free travel on the buses that day; a more equitable approach, more likely to bring people into town who might have been put off, more likely to generate revenue for businesses and, crucially, less likely to produce severe traffic problems (because when a traffic system is operating at or near capacity it is fundamentally unstable so even a marginal increase in traffic can produce serious congestion problems).  I was – and remain – deeply sceptical about claims that the free parking will have a significant impact for local businesses; the much bigger game in town is clearly the impact of austerity economics, and the headlong fall in real wages that goes along with it.

The plot has been thickened considerably by the paper the administration has produced for tomorrow’s Policy and Resources committee, which suggests an alternative approach of reducing charges in some car parks.  It claims that the opposition proposal will damage business and that its alternative approach will avoid that damage and reduce costs.

Once you start unpacking the paper, the administration’s position is weak and self-contradictory.  Specifically:

  • The administration claims that the opposition proposal will damage local businesses by reducing turnover in car parks as motorists will be encouraged to stay longer.  But they do not attempt to quantify that effect, and do not recognise that there may be offsetting benefits; for example people may stay in town for a meal.  My argument was not that the free parking would damage local business – it was that in the final analysis it wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference, with any benefit accruing to chain stores, while risking huge traffic problems that could gridlock the city.  Moreover, the only evidence offered for the claim is a COST paper prepared for the EU which is really little more than a compendium of parking schemes from around Europe, linked by some generalised narrative about the effects of parking management in the round.  It’s not evidence by any standards, and in linking to it the administration is really admitting the weakness of tis case;
  • The numbers used to justify the administration’s alternative simply don’t stack up.  Appendix 3 of the paper offers figures of £112k for the cost of the free parking proposal against £39k for the administration proposal: but these figures are driven by the assumption that there will be significant loss from unused parking spaces around the free car parks, while there will be much lower falls in revenue from unused spaces around the car parks whose price has been reduced in the administration proposal.  But on what is this assumption based? Is it seriously credible to claim that on the busiest weekends of the year, as part of an initiative designed to encourage more cars into the city, there will be unused spaces around the car parks?  It’s just not plausible and the paper does not contain one syllable of supporting evidence for that assumption.  And in any case neither figure is remotely close to the £300k quoted by Green councillors at the Full Council meeting.  This all looks like back-of-a-fag-packet policy-making to me.

I think this paper has a number of implications

First, the Greens – here as elsewhere – seem to have given up.  The administration is simply offering a watered-down version of the proposal passed at full Council, with little evidence to support it and making rather extreme assertions about the effect on business.  There is a principled, coherent policy rationale for opposing free parking – most notably the fact that the impact on business is unevidenced, while the proposal risks gridlock and excludes the poorest local citizens from its scope with the pricing benefits largely accruing to free-riders (people who would have used their cars anyway) and those from outside the city.  Admittedly, that involves a subtlety of analysis that the authors of the paper don’t get remotely close to, but this is Green politics to its core.  And a Green administration won’t touch it.  Damage limitation, perhaps, but if you’re going to go down – they haven’t got the votes to get their alternative through – you may as well go down with your principles and your intellectual reputation (such as it is) intact.

Second, at no point in this debate has the benefit to business been demonstrated.  We know now that the cost will be much less than £300k – which knocks the argument that you could pay for free buses on the head; the real cost of the measure is going to be around £40k, which, especially in the city with some of the highest bus fares in the country, won’t buy much bus travel.  To make an economic case you would need to show that the additional vehicles in town would bring lots of extra spending, but how likely is this?  The economic consensus is that the demand elasticity for parking is very low – in other words higher parking charges do not deter trips greatly, although of course they mean that shoppers have less to spend on other things.  But what is the real effect of this?  Are higher prices reflected in fewer visits, or shorter stays, and what is the real effect on spending?   In order for there to be a significant benefit to business you would have to show that the cut – value small – will bring in enough traffic from competing towns with significant additional spending power that will offset the negative effects of congestion etc.  I don’t think any of the politicians or businesses involved in this are in a position to do so.  And you would need to show that there are few or no free riders.  Against this, there is plenty of evidence to show that small increases in traffic can have a catastrophic effect on networks operating at or near capacity; it doesn’t take much to push a congested city centre into gridlock.  So you’re looking at a policy that poses big traffic risks without offering any properly quantified benefits.

Nothing in the paper – indeed in the debate as a whole – suggests that either politicians or officers are remotely in a position to offer an analysis with that degree of sophistication.  Nobody has challenged the assumptions on which the argument that cutting parking costs will boost the local economy rests.  Sending a signal? Perhaps, with a passing reflection that in my Whitehall days “sending a signal” was how one rationalised a policy that wouldn’t achieve anything beyond stroking Ministers’ prejudices.

The answer of course is simple.  This is not about economics at all. It’s about politics, and it is in particular about the politics of power and privilege; it is about the way in which a small, well-funded and politically well-connected pressure group, Unchain the Motorist, has been able to hijack the debate; a sort of Tea Party on wheels.  The assumptions and the language are all dominated by that group.  Some of the rhetoric is just risible; the language of demonstrating that Brighton is “open for business” is just plain idiotic; the city’s retail sector has suffered nothing like the fate of other towns, in the North in particular, which have been eviscerated by austerity – by unemployment, falling pay and soaring living costs.

And this is the real point: if there is a threat to Brighton’s retailers – especially the smaller businesses which are most likely to generate sustainable jobs – it comes from austerity, not parking charges.  In real terms pay has fallen at an unprecedented rate ever since the coalition came to power; and the businesses that form Unchain the Motorist have been the most vocal opponents of living wage policies in the city, even though they are most likely to benefit from the wider growth that such politics produce.  It shows that this is about politics, not economics.  Trade Unions who made the same sort of demands, and used the same sort of political tactics, as Unchain the Motorist, would be condemned out of hand by precisely the sort of politicians who are rumoured to be close to their campaign.  And the feeble administration response has simply handed control of the debate to this pressure group.

It seems almost certain that there will be free parking in some council car parks in the run-up to Christmas.  After all, that’s where the votes fall.  There may be a marginal effect on the local economy – either way; there may or may not be traffic chaos.  But that’s not the point.  This is pure politics, and the fact that Brighton’s progressives appear to have handed control of this debate to Unchain the Motorist should be a matter of real concern.

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One thought on “Christmas parking in Brighton and Hove: this is about politics, not economics

  1. I personally think Unchain Group have brought us back into the real world, how can we spend millions when we are cutting budgets to Special needs children and Adults and the elderly can not put their heating on.

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