Higher Parking Costs For The Most Polluting Vehicles – By James Hetherington.

One council in London is planning to make residential parking permits significantly more expensive, up to £690 per year in some case to park outside your own home.

Merton Council is planning to charge up to £690 a year for residential parking permits

Earlier in March, Merton Council in southwest London revealed plans to introduce much more expensive parking permits for residents who drive the most-polluting cars – as part of a broader effort to reduce car ownership and make transport more sustainable in the borough. 

In a document which can be downloaded from Merton Council’s website, the main goals of this proposal – which forms part of a larger reform of on-street and off-street parking rules in the area – is to reduce car journeys, encourage more use of sustainable travel, and encourage residents to switch to lower-emitting vehicles.

There is a huge effort to reduce the number of high-emitting vehicles on London’s roads

Last year, we discussed at length the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ), which is due to take effect this October. Unlike the current ULEZ, which mainly covers central London, the new zone will cover a significantly larger part of the city.

In that blog on ULEZ, we mentioned that there were some concerns about the prospect of motorists with older, high-polluting vehicles being caught out by hefty daily charges (£12.50). That would amount to a whopping £4,562.50 after 12 months – perhaps enough money to buy a half-decent used car! However, proponents of the expansion argue it will help cut air pollution and congestion. Plus, the principle of the scheme – to cut car emissions – has strong public support. Last year, a YouGov poll found that the overwhelming majority of Londoners (86%) said they supported measures to cut car emissions, with just 3% opposed.

Now, although Merton isn’t covered by the new ULEZ expansion, anyone who travels into the new ULEZ zone would still have to pay the daily £12.50 fee from October. That would be in addition to a big increase in parking permit fees for Merton residents who park a high-polluting vehicle outside their home. However, residents who park such cars on their driveways would be exempt from this scheme -and that may seem unfair to those for whom on-street parking is simply the only option available.

And when it comes to parking permits – is a fixed structure fair too?

Some residents in Merton think the new scheme would be unfair to those who are already reducing their mileage – and perhaps reducing their carbon footprint in other ways. That’s because the parking permit fees apply regardless of how much you use your car. So, whether you drive 100 miles a day or only use your car for short journeys a couple of times a week, the fee would remain the same.

The BBC article we linked to earlier raised the concerns of one resident who would be impacted by the new permits. Paul Hockney, of Raynes Park, said that while he has driven his Honda car for more than 20 years, he drives ‘very little’ and mainly uses the public transport network. But now he would have to pay £480 per year just to park his car outside his home, even though he said he uses his car to transport items to and from his allotment and to get to other places that are inaccessible via public transport.

And not all Merton councillors agree with the proposals either

In a meeting of councillors representing the Overview and Scrutiny Commission – which can be watched on YouTube – Cllr Daniel Holden said that the borough’s Conservative councillors were opposed to the plan because they claimed it:

Other criticisms

Cllr Paul Kohler wrote in a Twitter thread in February that his council’s proposal was ‘grossly unfair’. 

Also a member of Merton Liberal Democrats, Cllr Kohler referred to an article published in The Times which was entitled ‘£690 parking permits to drive down pollution’, arguing that this headline was ‘misleading’ because cars that are parked do not pollute. He called for an alternative scheme in which:

In a statement released last autumn, Merton Liberal Democrats said it did not believe the council’s proposals will be effective in encouraging residents to use their cars less or switching to less-polluting vehicles. The group even suggested that the council appeared to have designed a scheme to raise revenue, even suggesting that it would penalise areas of the borough that don’t typically elect Labour councillors. 

But the most expensive permits would only affect a small percentage of people

It is believed that the charges for parking permits in Merton are the highest in the country – and under the new proposals they would be raised to a maximum of £690 a year for the oldest and most-polluting vehicles.

However, another local councillor, Cllr Rebecca Lanning, who is a member of the Overview and Scrutiny Commission and also serves as the borough’s Councillor for Public Health, said that only ‘a handful’ of the borough’s residents would have to pay the highest charges.

She reiterated that the council was committed to improving air quality across the borough, and that the emissions-based parking fees would be targeted at the most-polluting cars – which would replace current permits that already cost some vehicles as much as £390.

What do other local people think?

A number of residents responded to Cllr Kohler’s tweets criticising the proposals. One said she was sad to see front gardens in her area being ‘destroyed’ and streets being turned into ‘car parks’, arguing that this was due to the council’s parking policies. However, another local resident said she welcomed the new proposals, arguing that car owners should be ‘charged properly’ when they keep their vehicles on public roads. 

Another resident criticised the intention of the scheme to ‘disincentivise car ownership’ at a time when people are still dissuaded from travelling via public transport, raising this concern with Merton Councillor Martin Whelton.

In response to Cllr Kohler, Cllr Chris Lee, Merton’s Director of Environment a​nd Regeneration, said in the meeting aired on YouTube that a rebate for low car usage had been raised and considered at the council’s Sustainable Communities Panel. But he warned that the administrative effort and burden would be significant and that he would discourage further consideration of a rebate in the Overview and Security Commission because of the council’s current financial challenges during the pandemic.

But what about a fee structure based on how much you drive instead?

Clean Air in London, a campaign group, argues that emissions charges should be based on the amount of pollution that cars create, per mile, and calls for financial incentives to encourage people to walk or cycle more. The campaign group has previously stated that a third of schools in London are close to roads where levels of dangerous NO2 pollution exceed the legal limits – and argues that since children are particularly vulnerable to pollution, this is an issue which must be addressed urgently.

Simon Birkett, the founder of Clean Air in London, says he believes all candidates for this year’s London Mayoral Election should support a ‘charge per mile’ system instead of ULEZ, arguing that this would be the ‘fairest way’ to cut pollution and congestion in the capital. 

Back in October, the group also called for a new Clean Air Act ahead of the COP26 conference (26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties) due to take place in Glasgow this November – suggesting that local authorities should have more power to reduce air pollution from homes and buildings by requiring zero or ultra low emission technologies in ‘Air Pollution Control Areas’.

But in 2019, when the ULEZ expansion was announced, Clean Air for London called on the Mayor of London – Sadiq Khan – to make the ULEZ area larger and to increase the emissions standards so that diesel would be banned by 2024. They also recommended a new ‘Emissions Based Road Charging’ scheme which could act as a replacement for what they termed ‘blunt’ ULEZ and congestion charges – all to create a ‘simpler, smarter and fairer’ ULEZ zone.

But, surely, as the emissions standards of vehicles improves, revenue from such schemes would fall?

Bearing in mind that the UK is due to ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030, it would be surprising if the revenue generated from ULEZ charges and parking permits (for high-emitting vehicles) didn’t fall over time – unless criteria for ‘high-emitting’ vehicles changes, which it could, in theory. 

And there’s strong evidence that emissions standards of vehicles on London’s roads are already improving rapidly

Leonie Cooper, who represents Merton and Wandsworth on the London Assembly, said in a recent Tweet that over 90% of cars in central London already meet ULEZ standards – a dramatic increase from just 39% in February 2017. 

So are stricter emissions policies –  like higher residential parking permit fees – necessary?

Some  – particularly those who seldom use their cars – might take the view that such a radical and rapid improvement in emissions standards in just a few years does not justify any proposal to increase residential parking permit fees so sharply.

Ironically, when – or if – revenue from these schemes does fall, that should be a good indication of their success rather than their failure (again, assuming the criteria doesn’t change significantly). So, in the Merton example, if the revenue from those higher-emitting cars were to remain high for the next few years, that would suggest the scheme – designed to disincentivize people from driving those vehicles in the first place – isn’t working as intended.

Or, to put it more simply: if these policies continue to generate large amounts of revenue without achieving their objectives of cutting emissions and pollution, surely they should be amended or abandoned?

Well, as the UK moves away from fossil fuels and the electric vehicle market booms, it will be interesting to see how these emissions-based policies evolve – bearing in mind the potential issues of sustainability and public trust. We look forward to revisiting this topic in other blogs in the coming months.

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