As Holyrood debates parking levy, campaigners press for public owned buses as alternative to driving

While political parties engage in a war of words, Unite and Friends of the Earth Scotland emphasise the need to improve public transport to cut car journeys and fight air pollution

  • Opposition parties criticise key announcement from SNP-Green budget deal after Finance Secretary Derek Mackay admits lack of economic impact analysis
  • Deputy First Minister John Swinney accuses the Scottish Tories of hypocrisy, citing their past support for empowering local authorities
  • Despite disagreeing over the Workplace Parking Levy, the Unite trade union and Friends of the Earth Scotland urge the Scottish Government to include public ownership of buses in the Transport Bill to help cut car journeys

THE SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT should throw its support behind the public ownership of buses in order to cut the number of car journeys taken by Scottish workers, the Unite trade union and Friends of the Earth Scotland have advised, following escalating controversy in Holyrood over the Workplace Parking Levy.

However, the union and the environmentalist group remain divided over the levy itself, reflecting the war of words over the issue that dominated Thursday’s First Minister’s Questions.

After Finance Secretary Derek Mackay’s admission on 6 February that no economic analysis of the levy’s potential economic impact has as yet been carried out, the Scottish Government has faced criticism from opposition parties, with the Scottish Conservatives arguing that the tax would hit the lowest paid hardest, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats describing the plan as “ill-conceived and impractical.”

Under the proposals introduced as part of the budget deal between the SNP and the Scottish Greens on 30 January, Scottish local authorities would gain powers similar to those that councils have enjoyed in England for 20 years, and be able to charge employers an annual tax for all employee parking spaces. Employers may choose to pay this themselves, or pass the cost on to their employees.

READ MORE: Majority of Scots back public ownership of bus services, new poll finds

The latter possibility led to claims from Tory MSP Jackson Carlaw that, based on the Tories’ own calculations, the levy could be “equivalent to increasing the basic rate of a tax paid to a worker on the Real Living Wage from 20 pence in the pound to 30 pence in the pound."

Deputy First Minister John Swinney, who argued that the Tories had been “spectacularly absent” from the budget negotiations, argued that the proposals allow local authorities to "exercise a judgement about whether they want to introduce the levy.

"The decision will be up to local authorities to take that decision. It is an example of localism in practice and I would've thought the Conservatives would have welcomed that."

Responding to a further question from Tory MSP Murdo Fraser, who asked which public sector workers might be excluded from the levy given that teachers and others may be lower-paid than NHS staff, Swinney reiterated that the budget deal was contingent on “the exclusion of hospitals and NHS properties”, and that further discussion on the matter is underway.

Green MSP Andy Wightman argued that, due to both Labour’s introduction of similar levy powers in England, and the Liberal Democrats’ support for such powers in the Scottish Parliament in 2000, both parties’ current criticism showed they were “more interested in partisan political point-scoring than in working together to tackle pollution, reduce congestion and empower local government.”

However, disagreement over the potential effectiveness of the levy has extended beyond the Scottish political parties.

READ MORE: Analysis: The workplace car levy is well meaning - but is it well thought through?

Friends of the Earth Scotland, which welcomed the announcement of the levy powers, have taken issue with the Tories’ key attack on the plans, arguing that the lowest-paid in Scotland do not have access to a car.

Friends of the Earth Scotland air pollution campaigner Gavin Thomson told CommonSpace: “Councils that choose to use the Workplace Parking Levy powers will be able to invest in public transport in their area, to improve and encourage cleaner forms of transport, and shift the balance away from car use. 

“Councils should be given broad powers, to include workplaces and other non-residential sites like out-of-town shopping centres under the Parking Levy. It won’t be right for every area, but if we want real change in our transport mix, then councils need every tool to be available to them.

“At the moment, some people in Scotland have no other viable way to get to work other than with a car. Many areas, both in cities and rural communities have insufficient, unpredictable public transport coverage. This needs to change rapidly, and is precisely why we need the investment that a Workplace Parking Levy would bring.

“People on the lowest incomes don’t have access to a car. Low-income workers walk, cycle or use public transport. This is worth keeping in mind when it is claimed this levy will harm people on lower incomes. If we fund better buses with this levy, it will most benefit people on low incomes.”

“The ability for councils to set a workplace levy through car parking spaces is a desperate attempt to absolve the government from the funding crisis they have presided over.” Unite Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty

However, the Unite trade union has argued that the levy plans are a poor solution to the underfunding of local authorities in Scotland, and expressed its own concerns about the impact it could have on public sector pay.

Speaking to CommonSpace, Unite Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty said: “The Scottish Government’s budget not only continues to underfund our public services by an estimated £100m, but also introduces a number of measures which, if enacted, could result in more attacks on public sector pay.

“The ability for councils to set a workplace levy through car parking spaces is a desperate attempt to absolve the government from the funding crisis they have presided over. If implemented, we would have the ludicrous situation where we would have the public sector taxing its own workers for turning up to work, taking the pay increase they have fought for, off them. “

“The Transport Bill gives us a great opportunity to deliver real bus reform and Workplace Parking Levy powers could provide some of the support needed for councils to make that happen.” Friends of the Earth Scotland air pollution campaigner Gavin Thomson

Both FoE Scotland and Unite reiterated their support for the public ownership of buses as a means of achieving the environmental aims of the levy plans, arguing improved public transport will be necessary to reduce employees’ commutes by car.

Gavin Thomson said: “The Transport Bill gives us a great opportunity to deliver real bus reform and Workplace Parking Levy powers could provide some of the support needed for councils to make that happen. By increasing bus use in tandem with reducing car journeys, we can cut air pollution and congestion, reduce climate emissions, and make our towns and cities better places to spend time.”

“Air pollution from transport is prematurely killing 2,500 people in Scotland each year. This public health crisis is due to the air pollution that chokes our towns and cities, with the vast majority of this toxic air coming from traffic, with pollution levels often peaking with rush hour traffic.”

READ MORE: Campaigners demand publicly owned buses after petition gathers 10,000 signatures

“Transport is now the largest sources of climate pollution in Scotland and has barely changed in 1990. If we want to meet targets in the years ahead, we need to challenge the stranglehold of cars on our communities.”

Pat Rafferty added: “Unite believes that public ownership of buses would provide regular and affordable travel in Scotland which would help to cut car journeys. We continue to put pressure on the government to consider this option in the transport mix.”

A Panelbase poll commissioned by the Scottish Greens in July of 2018 found that 58 per cent of Scots believe bus services in Scotland should be run by public operators. The poll also revealed that only 15 per cent believe bus services should be privately run, and that public ownership is supported by 73 per cent of SNP voters.

Also speaking at FMQs today, Labour MSP Neil Bibby accused the SNP-Green budget deal of cutting support for bus services by £7 million. Swinney responded that the change referred to a loan scheme that was not used, and the Bus Service Operators Grant remains in place. He added that the Transport Bill currently being pursued is intended to strengthen local bus services.

Picture: CommonSpace

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