Why other cities should copy Nottingham's revolutionary parking levy

Nottingham Express Transit: the workplace parking levy has helped fund extensions to the network. Image: Elliott Brown/Flickr/creative commons.

Since the 1980s, there has been a dispiriting narrative in transport in some UK cities. Bus deregulation in 1986, and the loosening of planning controls permitting new out of town shopping developments, was followed by significant growth in car ownership and use.

Since then, there has been a tendency in many cities to equate development and progress to increased car use, roads and car-based development. Cuts in government spending have been a further disincentive to promoting or funding public transport projects or other alternatives to car use.

Plenty of cities are doing good things on transport, however. The new Urban Transport Group, which brings together the urban transport authorities in London and other cities, is helping showcase what is happening on the ground and lobbying for the powers and funding to improve things.

But one city stands out as having achieved huge amount in this area. Nottingham is a medium-sized city of some 300,000 people (though the wider urban area is over 700,000).Yet it has some of the highest levels of public transport use outside London.

Nottingham City Council has developed a reputation for innovation and achievement in transport policy. It’s retained its ownership of the local bus company, Nottingham City Transport. It has also implemented a tram network – and it has implemented a levy on workplace parking spaces, the money from which goes towards transport projects in the city.

To say that this levy, more or less the first of its kind in the world, has been controversial is to understate things. 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 business es deserting Nottingham for other cities nearby, tumbleweed through the streets and so forth.

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; it has since risen to £375 a year, although there are various exemptions. 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.

A map of the Nottingham Express Transit tram network. Click to expand. Image: NET.

The results are becoming clear to see. Public transport use, already high, has now nudged above 40 per cent of journeys in the city, a very high percentage for the UK.

The wider economic impacts are perhaps more interesting: all the predictions of loss of jobs and businesses have proved unfounded. (In fact, the genesis of this piece was a comment on these pages that Nottingham had grown when many similar cities had shrunk.) Recent statistics show jobs growth in Nottingham has been faster than other cities, while traffic congestion has fallen. The levy, with the other measures, has also helped Nottingham reach its carbon reduction target a few years early.

Although every city is different, there might be some wider lessons here. One, for the transport economist geeks, might be to stop obsessing with congestion charging. Efficient in economic theory though this might be, Nottingham looked at it and decided that it would be very costly – all those cameras and enforcement – and would not target peak hour traffic jams and single-occupancy car commuting as effectively as the levy would.

The wider lesson from this is that the politics of a levy are different, too. With congestion charging you have to get support from the whole city and potentially its hinterland; and referenda in Manchester and Edinburgh show how difficult that is. With a workplace parking levy, there is a narrower and potentially more politically winnable discussion with businesses and commuters about what a levy could pay for – things that might make journeys to work easier and cut peak hour jams and pollution.


Another lesson is that, in cash-strapped times, this levy might be something for other cities to follow. In Nottingham, it is now generating around £9m a year, a reasonable sum for a city that size. There is interest in other cities: Oxford is actively pursuing such a policy, and other places are eyeing it up, too. Cambridge recently announced a radical city deal which includes a workplace parking levy (there is of course a strong argument for giving local authorities a range of revenue raising powers, as the rest of the world does; but let’s not get carried away).

And the final lesson is that cities can, in fact, grow their economy without increased traffic and congestion, and while reducing carbon emissions. This might be something for the candidates for mayors in the city regions to take on board as they start to construct their manifestos.

Stephen Joseph is chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport. A briefing on the Nottingham workplace parking levy is available on the website of the Campaign’s new thought leadership programme, Tracks.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

The Adam Smith Institute thinks size doesn’t matter when housing young professionals. It’s wrong

A microhome, of sorts. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Adam Smith Institute has just published ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’, a report by Vera Kichanova, which argues that eliminating minimum space requirements for flats would help to solve the London housing crisis. The creation of so-called ‘micro-housing’ would allow those young professionals who value location over size to live inside the most economically-active areas of London, the report argues argues.

But the report’s premises are often mistaken – and its solutions sketchy and questionable.

To its credit, it does currently diagnose the roots of the housing crisis: London’s growing population isn’t matched by a growing housing stock. Kichanova is self-evidently right in stating that “those who manage to find accomodation [sic] in the UK capital have to compromise significantly on their living standards”, and that planning restrictions and the misnamed Green Belt are contributing to this growing crisis.

But the problems start on page 6, when Kichanova states that “the land in central, more densely populated areas, is also used in a highly inefficient way”, justifying this reasoning through an assertion that half of Londoners live in buildings up to two floors high. In doing so, she incorrectly equates high-rise with density: Kichanova, formerly a Libertarian Party councillor in Moscow, an extraordinarily spread-out city with more than its fair share of tall buildings, should know better.

Worse, the original source for this assertion refers to London as a whole: that means it includes the low-rise areas of outer London, rather than just the very centrally located Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the City, West End, South Bank and so forth – with which the ASI report is concerned. A leisurely bike ride from Knightsbridge to Aldgate would reveal that single or two-storey buildings are almost completely absent from those parts of London that make up the CAZ.

Kichanova also argues that a young professional would find it difficult to rent a flat in the CAZ. This is correct, as the CAZ covers extremely upmarket areas like Mayfair, Westminster, and Kensington Gardens (!), as well as slightly more affordable parts of north London, such as King’s Cross.

Yet the report leaps from that quite uncontroversial assertion to stating that living outside the CAZ means a commute of an hour or more per day. This is a strawman: it’s perfectly possible to keep your commuting time down, even living far outside of the CAZ. I live in Archway and cycle to Bloomsbury in about twenty minutes; if you lived within walking distance of Seven Sisters and worked in Victoria, you would spend much less than an hour a day on the Tube.

Kichanova supports her case by apparently misstating research by some Swiss economists, according to whom a person with an hour commute to work has to earn 40 per cent more money to be as satisfied as someone who walks. An hour commute to work means two hours travelling per day – by any measure a different ballpark, which as a London commuter would mean living virtually out in the Home Counties.

Having misidentified the issue, the ASI’s solution is to allow the construction of so-called micro-homes, which in the UK refers to homes with less than the nationally-mandated minimum 37m2 of floor space. Anticipating criticism, the report disparages “emotionally charged epithets like ‘rabbit holes’ and ‘shoeboxes,” in the very same paragraph which describes commuting as “spending two hours a day in a packed train with barely enough air to breath”.


The report suggests browsing Dezeen’s examples of designer micro-flats in order to rid oneself of the preconception that tiny flats need mean horrible rabbit hutches. It uses weasel words – “it largely depends on design whether a flat looks like a decent place to live in” – to escape the obvious criticism that, nice-looking or not, tiny flats are few people’s ideal of decent living. An essay in the New York Times by a dweller of a micro-flat describes the tyranny of the humble laundry basket, which looms much larger than life because of its relative enormity in the author’s tiny flat; the smell of onion which lingers for weeks after cooking a single dish.

Labour London Assembly member Tom Copley has described being “appalled” after viewing a much-publicised scheme by development company U+I. In Hong Kong, already accustomed to some of the smallest micro-flats in the world, living spaces are shrinking further, leading Alice Wu to plead in an opinion column last year for the Hong Kong government to “regulate flat sizes for the sake of our mental health”.

Amusingly, the Dezeen page the ASI report urges a look at includes several examples directly contradicting its own argument. One micro-flat is 35 m2, barely under minimum space standards as they stand; another is named the Shoe Box, a title described by Dezeen as “apt”. So much for eliminating emotionally-charged epithets.

The ASI report readily admits that micro-housing is suitable only for a narrow segment of Londoners; it states that micro-housing will not become a mass phenomenon. But quite how the knock-on effects of a change in planning rules allowing for smaller flats will be managed, the report never makes clear. It is perfectly foreseeable that, rather than a niche phenomenon confined to Zone 1, these glorified student halls would become common for early-career professionals, as they have in Hong Kong, even well outside the CAZ.

There will always be a market for cheap flats, and many underpaid professionals would leap at the chance to save money on their rent, even if that doesn’t actually mean living more centrally. The reasoning implicit to the report is that young professionals would be willing to pay similar rents to normal-sized flats in Zones 2-4 in order to live in a smaller flat in Zone 1.

But the danger is that developers’ response is simply to build smaller flats outside Zone 1, with rent levels which are lower per flat but higher per square metre than under existing rules. As any private renter in London knows, it’s hardly uncommon for landlords to bend the rules in order to squeeze as much profit as possible out of their renters.

The ASI should be commended for correctly diagnosing the issues facing young professionals in London, even if the solution of living in a room not much bigger than a bed is no solution. A race to the bottom is not a desirable outcome. But to its credit, I did learn something from the report: I never knew the S in ASI stood for “Slum”.