Westcountry councils are forecast to pocket a £30 million profit from motorists in parking charges and fines this year, according to fresh Government figures.
Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles warned local authorities not to treat motorists as “cash cows” to plug holes in town hall budgets.
But councils in the region hit back, criticising the minister for “throwing stones” at
a time when authorities are having to cope with “significant budget cuts”.
The three biggest earners in the far South West in 2013-14 are expected to be Cornwall Council (£6.6m profit), Exeter City Council (£4m) and Torbay Council (£3.5m).
Not every authority expects an increase in what they make from parking fees and fines, however, which are supposed to be a tool for tackling congestion. Cornwall Council’s projected profit is nearly £2.9m less than in 2012-13. Ten others also anticipate a drop.
Those that reckon they will squeeze more from motorists, despite traffic falling, include Exeter City Council (£516,000 more), Somerset County Council (£141,000) and Teignbridge District Council (£116,000). Dartmoor National Park expects to more than double its profit, from £3,000 last year to £7,000 this year.
Nationally, councils forecast they will make £635m profit from parking charges and fines in 2013-14, and £34m more in net income from parking this year than in 2012-13.
The coalition says it has scrapped Whitehall rules that previously told councils to hike up parking charges and ministers are considering what further steps can be taken to ensure that town hall parking policies and practices support local high streets.
Mr Pickles, a Conservative, wants motorists to be allowed to park on double yellow lines for 15 minutes amid concerns rules are undermining high streets and shopping parades. But Lib-Dem local transport minister Norman Baker has refused to rule out increasing parking fines outside London from £70 to £130, underling differences within the Coalition.
Councils can boost their income by pushing up the cost of hourly parking, introducing meters where parking was once free or extending the time when charges are enforced.
Mr Pickles, said: “The law is clear that parking is not a tax or cash cow for town hall officers. This £635 million municipal parking profit shows why we need to review and rein in unfair town hall parking rules. Councils aren’t listening, and local shops and hard-working families are suffering as a result.”
Councillor Rosie Denham, portfolio holder for economy and culture of Labour-controlled Exeter City Council, said Mr Pickles was “detached from reality”.
She added: “Without income from parking we wouldn’t be able to invest £4 million in the city centre each year on things like CCTV, toilets, street cleaning, tourism, parks and gardens and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum – all of which benefit residents, businesses and visitors alike.
“Despite the recession Exeter is doing well, we’ve got fantastic new developments like John Lewis bringing in people from all around the area which is why our parking revenues are forecast to rise. Mr Pickles should be congratulating us, not throwing stones.”
Cornwall Council said income from car parks has droppedand it is considering reducing the price of season tickets. But it added it has a large number of car parks that cost a lot to maintain because of scattered settlements and a holiday influx, as well as 6,000km of road to look after.
Independent councillor Bert Biscoe, portfolio holder for transport and waste on Independent-Liberal Democrat-controlled Cornwall Council, said: “Cornwall provides a service in terms of the quality of its roads – the positioning and pricing of its car parks contributes to the cost of this provision and helps to facilitate conditions which are good for trade.”
Plymouth City Council will make £481,000 from parking, an increase of £15,000. A spokesman for the Labour-controlled authority said the forecasted increase relates to fees for vehicle permits, as it expects more to be sold, which covers the administration costs.
She added: “Parking fees have not been increased in Plymouth since March 2011.
“Any surplus funds that we have after our costs are covered is reinvested into transport services such as highways maintenance.
“Like all councils across the country we are facing significant budget cuts, including a big reduction in our highways maintenance budget. Using any surplus we have helps lessen the effect of these cuts.”
'Encourage cars back into town centres again'
Eric Pickles has called for councils to put to an end “Draconian” parking policies which he says are contributing to the death of high streets across the Westcountry.
The Communities and Local Government secretary has called on town halls to lower parking charges and get rid of speed bumps and parking bollards that are putting people off travelling in to towns to shop.
His call has come in the week in which his department is set to issue new planning guidance which will force councils to make high streets more car-friendly. However, it has been questioned by local politicians and business representatives in the Westcountry, with one saying it was evidence he did not get “localism”.
Mr Pickles said trying to find somewhere to park was an obstacle course in too many towns and cities.
“Draconian town hall parking policies and street clutter can make driving into town centres unnecessarily stressful and actually create more congestion because of lack of places to park,” he said. “Anti-car measures are driving motorists into the arms of internet retailers and out of town superstores, taking their custom with them.
“Confusing and difficult car parking practices are undermining the economic vitality of the high street and tourist destinations. Over-zealous parking wardens have inflicted real damage on local economies and given many towns and councils a bad name.”
Cornwall Council has committed to lowering parking charges and recently ran a trial in Launceston and is planning further consultations. Alex Folkes, portfolio holder for finance and resources, said: “It’s another case of [Mr Pickles] not getting localism. On this occasion I agree with a lot of what he says. Parking charges are hurting the Cornish economy. [On his other points] I disagree with him. Bollards would have been put in for a reason. Councils don’t like to spend money for no reason.”
Ricky Knight, Barnstaple town councillor and Green Party European candidate, said the suggestion was “absurd”: “It would just make traffic on our narrow streets even worse. From the Green Party’s point of view, we want to keep cars out of town centres.”
Dick Cliffe, chairman of Penzance Chamber of Commerce, said: “High costs of parking is the biggest issue in Penzance.
“If you want to stop people coming to town centres you do two things: put up business rates and increase parking charges.”