A tax on parking at work – from a First Minister who doesn’t drive…

By Graham Grant

THE proof that high-ranking politicians rarely travel by train or, God forbid, by bus, is easily found: just take a look at the state of public transport.

If they did, presumably greater effort would be expended on making it less of a basket case, as anyone who has to use it even occasionally would attest.

Nicola Sturgeon gives the rail system the widest of berths, preferring the sanctuary of a chauffeur-drive limousine or perhaps, at election time at least, the ‘Nicolopter’.

Not that she has much choice – given that she can’t drive – so the First Minister is mercifully spared the myriad miseries of motorists everywhere, from eye-watering bills to traffic jams.

From her perch in that impeccably upholstered government vehicle, she can comfortably ruminate on her Finance Secretary Derek Mackay’s latest tax wheeze – the workplace parking levy.

Successive governments have wisely steered clear of this politically toxic idea for the last 20 years; indeed, senior SNP MSP Bruce Crawford said back in 2000 that his party was ‘never convinced that workplace charging was the way forward’.

What changed this sensible analysis was the intervention of the Greens, without whom Mr Mackay’s Budget would have struggled to get parliamentary backing last week.

Cue a raft of taxes, from an inflation-busting hike of nearly five per cent in council tax, to local tourism taxes and a deeply ominous commitment to reforming the council tax.

Add to this the Nationalists’ ‘progressive’ raid on income tax, and the plans for workplace parking charges are a final slap in the face for anyone who has the temerity to work for a living.

Mr Mackay, in the best traditions of public sector blame transference, has got his excuses in early by making clear that it’s down to individual councils whether to hit businesses with the employee parking fees – as if there were any real doubt that any of them could resist the urge to do so.

The millions that will flow in – topping up the extra cash from council tax (and bear in mind £1.3billion of that remains uncollected) – are simply irresistible, and what’s more the councils can continue the blame game by claiming they had no choice, because they don’t get enough cash from Mr Mackay.

Caught in this eternal loop is the hapless driver, who long ago shunned the rail service for its chronic unreliability; or who works anti-social hours, making a bus or train journey an impossibility; or who lives in a rural location (not exactly unusual in Scotland), turning their car into nothing less than a life-line.

For Miss Sturgeon, whether in the Nicolopter, or the limousine, these are secondary concerns.

Neither is Green MSP Mark Ruskell – who cycles to Holyrood then claims it back on mileage – likely to agonise over the predicament of a teacher or hotel worker priced out of their own car park.

What makes this idea doubly attractive for politicians is the fact that it’s employers who will be liable for the planned ‘poll tax on wheels’, and not workers.

But it should come as no great shock to anyone that bosses are likely to pass on the costs to employees, in many cases because they have no real option.

In Nottingham, the workplace parking levy was introduced in 2012, when the annual cost was £288 per bay, and it’s now £415, a rise of 44 per cent. (well, taxes never go down).

Some 40 per cent of businesses have shifted the cost to workers, with the levy applying to all businesses with more than 11 parking spaces.

Implementation was ham-fisted: some businesses shut their car parks to try and avoid the charge, but this meant their workers parked nearby, clogging up residential areas; other firms simply moved out of town.

Companies can ultimately claim the workplace levy back from the taxman, as it’s tax deductible – a fact that wasn’t communicated to businesses at the start.

But the charges are upfront, meaning there’s a time-lag of a year before it can be reclaimed, and in the meantime there’s a serious risk a smaller business might go bust, after having to fork out for the workplace levy.

‘Camera cars’ using number plate recognition tour Nottingham car parks to enforce the scheme, giving it an appropriately Orwellian touch certain to appeal to the government that came up with Named Person.

Critics also say congestion has been moved out of Nottingham city centre, but suburban areas are now gridlocked, so the problem has been shunted from one area to another.

In Scotland, we’re told hospitals will not be part of the scheme, but so far ministers haven’t ruled out imposing it on teachers, with whom they are already mired in a bitter pay dispute which may yet result in nationwide strike action.

Will individual schools have to pick up the tab for their teachers’ parking charges, at exorbitant cost, or pass it on to their staff – or will councils (taxpayers) foot the bill – robbing Peter to pay, er, Peter?

No-one knows, but we can expect consultations, questionnaires, and many expenses claims from councillors on fact-finding missions to Nottingham.

Taxes only work when they are applied equally, otherwise they breed resentment: once allowances are made for one group of workers, based on their perceived contribution to the public good, other professions will make similar claims.

After all, private sector workers create the capital that allows public services to exist.

And it’s the private sector that will be disproportionately hit, despite sluggish economic growth, as the workplace parking levy will prove another disincentive to business start-ups and entrepreneurs, helping to drain more life out of our moribund High Streets.

A recent survey by the AA found that out of the 58 per cent of its Scots members who park for free at work, 12 per cent would leave their jobs if a levy were to be imposed.

It’s all part of the wrong-headed logic that governs most municipal thinking these days: for example, many new-build developments in city centre and suburban areas deliberately don’t contain any provision for parking spaces, to discourage car ownership.

‘Influencing behaviour’ is the aim, but weren’t local politicians meant to come up with solutions for the people who pay their taxes, rather than create extra obstacles for their day-to-day lives?

An unedifying alliance between the SNP and its Green backers is set to foist another financial burden on that most reliable of cash cows – the motorist – already taxed to the hilt and endlessly milked for sky-high insurance, fuel and maintenance.

Perhaps the only upside is that this welter of ill-conceived taxes, once properly digested by a hard-pressed electorate, could put an end to the SNP’s spell in government – and give anyone who has to work for a living some desperately needed respite.

*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on February 5, 2019.

Home Affairs Editor, columnist, leader writer, Scottish Daily Mail. Twitter: @GrahamGGrant Facebook: @sdmnewspaper