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.