There is some truth in Eric Pickles argument that local councils can work better to deliver services without raising the council tax. But the reality is that communities are now left to organise and fight the budget cutting plans of councils who are ill-equipped to think and work in radically different ways to maintain services in non-conventional ways. We’ve seen this with the library and sports centre closures where communities have come together to try and run the services themselves. The communities have not done this in partnership with councils, but in reaction to clumsy traditional cuts programmes. The process goes something like: 1) identify service that could be cut, 2) “consult” with the local communities (a legal requirement), 3) tailor cuts to pay heed to consultation (“we listened”), 4) implement cuts. Councils would do well to read the new Surviving Austerity report from the New Economics Foundation. Eric Pickles would do well to take more responsibility for helping councils manage the impact of his cuts on local communities.
The latest council response to the cuts in Leeds is to try to introduce charges for residents parking permits. We currently have a free scheme which has been in place for years whereby residents can apply for two parking passes to allow them and their visitors to park outside their own home. The scheme is important because the area is surrounded by a football stadium, a divisional police HQ and a park and ride scheme – without the scheme, residents would be unlikely to be able to park near their homes and the area would be far more dangerous for pedestrians. Now the council want to charge for the scheme. (These ideas seem to spread from council to council. The latest craze is to propose charging for children in care, with families and the children themselves if over 16 being asked to pay. This has been rightly condemned by the NSPCC).
There are fundamental problems with both the permit-charging proposal itself and the way in which Leeds City Council have gone about consulting the community. I’ve challenged them on both points – a summary below. The first point about the scheme itself is inspired by the Barnet CPZ Action Group who have been successful in having a similar proposal in Barnet declared illegal because “the 1984 Road Traffic Regulation Act is not a fiscal measure and does not authorise the authority to use its powers to charge local residents for parking in order to raise surplus revenue for other transport purposes”.
Why Leeds City Council’s proposal is fundamentally flawed: The principle Leeds City Council must work to is that no resident should be unable to have visitors parking outside their home. It is not enough to make parking free for just blue badge holders and carers. Many people fall outside of these categories, but would still be unable to afford the charges; 70% of households in my parking zone have an income below the national average. The nearest off-road parking is a long way from the zone making it completely inappropriate for elderly visitors, visitors with children, visitors with disabilities, visitors to businesses run from home, and so on. These charges have the potential to restrict people’s lives and damage the community.
Why Leeds City Council’s consultation on the proposals is fundamentally flawed: The consultation letter Leeds City Council sent to residents was (as shown by a subsequent FOI response by the council) misleading and omitted important information residents would need to be able to form a considered opinion. The letter should have framed the proposals in terms of ‘income generation to offset other LCC costs by charging residents considerably more for a service than the service actually costs’, rather than framing the proposals in terms of ‘savings’ against a scheme which actually cost very little. The letter incorrectly stated there were ongoing annual costs when in reality only £105.38 had been spent on maintenance 6 years ago. The letter failed to state that decommissioning the scheme would be potentially far more expensive than maintaining it. The letter also included irrelevant monetary figures such as how much the scheme cost to set up many years ago (this is an exploitation of anchoring bias whereby consumers expect to pay a higher price for a product when it has been surrounded by high numbers. In the consultation, residents were asked to state how much they would be willing to pay for permits). And finally, the letter failed to acknowledge how essential the scheme was to an area surrounded by a football stadium, a divisional police HQ and a park and ride scheme.
The central government’s austerity policy puts Leeds City Council and the residents of Leeds in a very difficult situation, but LCC must approach this in a fair and honest way, and do everything it can to protect vulnerable people, including those on low incomes. It would be good if LCC could find constructive ways to work with the local communities to identify savings in future.