My own personal blog. UNISON NEC Member & National Convenor, Newham Councillor for West Ham Ward, Vice Chair of Local Authority Pension Fund Forum, Pension trustee, Housing & Safety Practitioner. Centre left and proud member of Labour movement family. Strictly no trolls please.
If you read this blog then you’re probably reasonably active online, and so you’ve probably already seen some discussion about the proposal that Newham should charge for residential parking permits. Apologies for the click-baity title, but I wanted to use this post to have my say: no one wants to pay more for anything, and I’m certainly not delighted by the difficult conversations and decisions that we will need to have and take over the next few months. But overall I do firmly believe that charging for parking permits is the responsible, moral, environmental, socially conscious and just thing to do, and I wanted to take a moment to ‘set out my stall’ as it were, and to go through some of the issues in a little more detail than, say, twitter, will sometimes allow.
Administering parking permits costs money. We are moving to paperless permits (finally!) as part of the proposed changes, and this will help and will make the whole process faster and easier for residents. But maintaining the IT system, updating it, dealing with queries, updating the database, designing legally compliant bays, painting lines on the road, reviewing the restrictions, consulting on changes, this all takes officer time and money. And the bottom line is that without parking restrictions, the whole borough basically becomes a commuter car park for Essex and beyond.
I remember just before our RPZ came into force in Forest Gate North, my then colleague Ellie Robinson followed some intelligence about some cars for sale on roads including Capel Rd, Lorne Rd and Latimer Rd. Some investigation revealed an extraordinary number of cars, all parked up for days and weeks at at time, from a dealership outside London that was changing location. It had a gap between sites, had looked at whereabouts was well-located and with unrestricted parking, and moved all of their stock, entirely legally, onto our streets. I remember a resident reporting watching someone parking up outside her house, getting out their Brompton bike, and cycling off on it to the station. I remember someone telling me we were the only station between Southend and Liverpool Street with free parking on the roads. I remember watching when the RPZ came into force in Forest Gate South, in the conservation area, and seeing all the trades vehicles, lorries, vans, and second cars that people didn’t want to get permits for (or which they had sneakily insured in places with cheaper postcodes, and so COULDN’T get permits for!) moving from those roads up onto my road. Without borough-wide restrictions we were really just shifting vehicles from place to place, which wasn’t fair or sustainable.
So if we accept, as I do evidently, that we need to restrict parking in order that we as residents can use our road-space, then it is obvious that doing so costs money, and the question then is who pays for this.
Currently around half of Newham households do not have access to a car, so as things stand those people who do not have cars are subsidising those who do. As a council we apply all kinds of subsidies in various ways and places. We, the residents, collectively subsidise the council tax of people on the lowest incomes via Council Tax benefit. We subsidise the cost of feeding families through our free school meals programme, for example. A subsidy from people with no cars, applied to those who have vehicles, is not one that I feel comfortable with or think is right, whereas applying the costs of parking to those who have cars, and applying a greater cost to more polluting vehicles seems much more sensible to me.
It’s common and usual to worry about the impact of new charges on people with low incomes. We wouldn’t be doing our jobs properly if we weren’t concerned about this. Any new charges will be imperfect (the structure of Council tax is infamously imperfect and rests proportionately much more heavily on the poor than others) and I do see the argument that some people on lower incomes will have older more polluting vehicles.
But overall, running a car costs a lot of money. As above, around half of all households in Newham don’t have a car. Some of those residents will live in the increasing number of ‘car free’ developments where they cannot get a parking permit as the result of a condition of their planning permission. Some of those residents will be people who have chosen not to have a car, as I hope more people will decide in future. But overall, the statistics on car ownership show that it declines rapidly with income level. Our very poorest residents do not own cars. In fact, our poorest residents are much more likely to live in places with the very worst air quality which is partly attributable to car journeys, and to suffer from the ill effects and ill health that goes with that.
If you’re really interested in finding out more about active travel and social justice, have a look at the brilliant work Dr Rachel Aldred is doing on active travel, or look up some of the articles our wonderful local resident Laura Laker is writing.
It’s very normal to charge
One of the very first lessons I learnt as a councillor was how emotional people feel about parking. This continues to be true, and continues to be very striking! The ‘first residential permit free‘ was a big pledge from the old administration, and one that lots of people feel strongly about, and I can understand why.
But actually, it is very very normal to charge for residential parking permits. If we look across London, Newham and Hillingdon are the only boroughs who do not charge for the first permit. We are outliers in this respect. The free permit is an anomaly. Cyclists who use a space in a bike hangar, where six bicycles can fit instead of one car, must not only wait for the results of a consultation to see whether there is opposition from their neighbours, but must then pay £36 for the privilege of using a mode of transport that improves their health and causes zero emissions. This isn’t right.
(Incidentally, I have been lobbying for more cycle storage, as I know myself how much demand there is, especially in Forest Gate. I will keep on with this, and will keep arguing for the bicycle hangars that I know many of you are requesting and waiting for.)
Some of you may have found, like me, that when you speak to colleagues and friends from other London boroughs, their reaction ranges from surprise to disbelief when you tell them that the first residential parking permit in Newham is free. Some people I speak to literally cannot believe it. “What, nothing?! Free? For everyone? Why? How come?”
It is only through becoming involved with groups like Living Streets, who campaign for pedestrians, and also through an increasing interest in better public spaces in my councillor work and my role on the Strategic Development, that I have started to think in a more and more political way about our roads and pavements. Roads, especially in dense urban areas, are our largest public spaces. The area of London given over to parking vehicles is the equivalent size of the borough of Southwark.
Roads belong to all of us, are maintained by all of us, but have historically been designed around the needs of cars, with all other users squeezed in where space and traffic will permit. Modern transport planning recognises that you have to do things differently, and does attempt to address that. The London Mayor’s Transport strategy sets really ambitious targets for encouraging people to walk, to use public transport, and to cycle whenever they can. But the changes we’ve made and are making are incredibly modest and marginal, and in the face of enormous opposition.
There is no other public space that any of us expect to be able to store our property on. I would never think that I could store any item from my house on the road, except our family car. Of course I am not saying that roadside parking should stop. In Newham most houses don’t have space for off-street parking (and even if they do, we almost never grant additional dropped kerbs for access, as doing so damages the pavement, increases the amount of paving in front gardens which contributes to flooding, and also removes parking spaces from the street). But parking outside one’s house is, I would say, a privilege and not a right. Whenever I park my car in a bay on the road, I am using space that is ours, not mine.
London’s air quality is an increasingly high political priority, and increasingly a cause for concern. I like to think I’ve always been worried about it, but have to admit my concern has got a little more personal focus since having a little girl who has suffered from breathing problems, since she was tiny. Last year I was very unwell with bronchitis, and developed a wheeze myself, and found myself dependent on an inhaler for the first time – an unpleasant reminder of how breathing difficulties can affect us all, and how much of an impact it can make on every day life.
I won’t go into the air quality arguments here as I know that the facts about Newham’s horrendous asthma rate in children, our rates of pollution, the early deaths that occur every year, the impact on the developing lungs of children… I feel like all these things are pretty well known. I see and of course agree with the arguments that some of the really significant contributors to poor air quality like the airport and Silvertown tunnel, won’t be affected by charges on residents’ cars. But these factors also do not mean that we should do nothing. Having other contributors to pollution in the borough is a reason for more local action, not less.
I also certainly don’t claim that emissions-based charges for parking permits will on their own tackle and improve our air quality. But this is a really vital piece of the puzzle. Alongside stricter planning requirements, alongside healthy school streets closures, alongside reducing short car journeys, alongside opposing the Silvertown tunnel, alongside increasing provision for cycling, and making streets safer for pedestrians, alongside tree planting and greening, green walls and screens, we also need to apply charges that are higher to the most polluting vehicles. Doing this is difficult, but it’s also right and fair.
I mentioned unnecessary car journeys above. No one can have failed to notice the extreme weather we’ve had recently: the weirdly mild winter, the increasingly scorching summers, the storms. It’s hard not to conclude that these are all evidence of climate change having an impact faster and more strongly than we anticipated before. We have declared a climate emergency in Newham, as have many other boroughs. I’ve said to my colleagues in meetings now twice, and I will say it again (lucky them): declaring the emergency is the easy bit. Declaring it is straightforward and feels good. Now we have to take action, which is harder. We have to begin making the really difficult decisions that will, together, help to shape a more environmentally conscious borough, and to make the kinds of behaviour change that will make a difference.
Ultimately we do need to reduce the number of car journeys. That doesn’t mean not using cars at all. Of course there are some people who will need to use cars more than others – in fact, promoting walking, cycling and public transport will actually make it easier, for example, for disabled people who depend on their vehicles to use the road, and to find places to park. There are many people who currently depend on the use of their car for work. But there are also huge numbers of unnecessary journeys. Just for example, there are a large number of very short car journeys made in our borough, and we need to reduce this number and to change how we move around. That’s not always going to be easy but it is going to be necessary.
Not about electric vehicles
This also absolutely is not about saying that everyone therefore needs to get an expensive electric car. Electric cars will continue to be free under these proposals, which I actually happen to think is not the right thing to do. There is still a cost to issuing permits to electric vehicles, which I think the owners of these vehicles should pay. And electric vehicles are not an environmental panacea: they still produce particulate pollution from their brakes and tyres, the production of these vehicles still has a huge carbon footprint, and the electricity they use has to be produced somewhere. Also, to really tackle climate change we will need to, as I was saying above, engage in some behaviour change, not just jump in an electric vehicle rather than a diesel one. Electric vehicles represent part of the solution, but by no means a magical answer.
I know this won’t be popular, but I do also want to say that we could have gone further with out parking proposals. We could have, for example, limited the total number of vehicles allowed per household. We could have limited the total number of permits available. We could have made the proposed charges higher! I know that the idea of charging at all seems shocking, but to my mind these aren’t, as the Newham Recorder and others have described them, ‘radical‘. Actually our proposals are pretty middle of the road (no pun intended) and normal.
I will press ‘publish’ on this post with a bit of trepidation. I already mentioned how strongly people feel about parking. When we introduced the residential parking zone across the ward I insisted on holding a residents’ drop-in meeting, and pushed this through despite resistance from various quarters and colleagues. I don’t think I’ve ever faced as much aggression and hostility as I did at that meeting (though interestingly, when I spoke to everyone there individually, it became obvious that the mood was being dominated by one or two very vocal people and overall views were much more mixed and nuanced). I don’t underestimate how strongly people will feel about this issue. But, at the risk of sounding grandiose, I became a councillor to make the world – ok, specifically Forest Gate – a better place. I didn’t become a councillor for personal glory. I want to do the right thing. I do honestly think that this is the right thing. I hope that you do too, but if you disagree with me, I hope you do at least understand my view.