Are Conservative councils "damaging local high streets and small businesses"?

4 January 2013

"Researchers found that Conservative-run councils rake in far more from parking charges than town halls under Labour."

The Daily Telegraph, 4 January 2012

You're running 5 minutes late and you return to your car to find a £50 penalty charge notice plastered to your windscreen. But no matter how tempting it might be to vent your anger at the uniformed official who's inspecting vehicles further down the road, it's worth bearing in mind that traffic wardens are only doing the bidding of the local authority.

It's a council that decides how much a parking ticket costs and what a fine should be, so should it be politicians rather than traffic wardens who deal with the public's ire?

The Labour Party has just released research that claims to show that some councils in England and Wales are levying more in parking charges and fines than others. Furthermore, it says that Conservative-run councils impose the highest costs on motorists. So where is the evidence?

By submitting targeted Freedom of Information requests to councils, Labour calculated the average cost of parking charges (on street parking, off street parking and fines).

It looks like the Labour party has then calculated the average parking charge per household by requesting information on the total revenue raised from parking charges and dividing this sum by the number of households in the area.

For example, we can see from an FOI request submitted to the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead that the average parking charge for the district is £105.88 (as quoted in the Daily Telegraph). From 226 responses (out of a total of 373 councils in England and Wales), the research showed that Conservative-led councils charge - on average - more than any other type of council in England and Wales.

The table below shows a summary of the data provided by Labour:

Source: Labour Party

Is the comparison a fair one?

In response to the Labour party's press release, Brandon Lewis, the Local Government Minister, argued: ''These figures give a partial and skewed picture failing to account for the different costs in different parts of the country.'' 

We asked the Labour party if it could provide us with a full data set but we've been told there's no plan to publish the numbers in full.

According to the Daily Telegraph, of the councils that responded to Labour's FOIs, 116 were Conservative, 69 Labour and seven Lib Dem. This means that 34 responses were received from councils with No Overall Control. What does this mean for how we view the results of Labour's survey?

We don't know how many Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem councils failed to respond to an FOI, or whether the Labour party decided not to submit information requests to all 373 local councils. However, it's worth pointing out that the proportion of councils surveyed is similar for all three political parties - 61% of the total number of Conservative councils, 63% of Labour councils and 58% of Lib Dem councils. 

However, Mr Lewis's point is that the raw numbers don't tell us much about the individual circumstances faced by different councils.

For example, the greatest discrepancies can be found in London, where the Conservatives control Westminster council, an area where we might expect higher traffic density due to the West End and other attractions, but where fewer people live. The amount taken in charges and fines as a proportion of resident households might therefore be artificially high here.

Similarly, Labour-controlled councils tend to be more commonly found in urban areas, which have high population densities, but where a higher proportion of people might use public transport. We could therefore speculate that we might expect to find a lower charges-to-population ratio in these areas.

What do the numbers tell us?

Hilary Benn, the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, has said that the figures show that "Tory Councils are imposing much higher charges when families up and down the country are seeing their incomes squeezed".  

From what we've seen of the data and what we know of Labour's methodology, it's reasonable to suggest that more is collected per resident household in Conservative-controlled authorities than in the Labour equivalents.

Whether this is because higher charges have been "imposed" by Conservative councillors is more dubious. The information that Labour has provided to us actually shows average receipts from parking charges and fines, not the amounts being levied on individual motorists.

As we've seen, the trend uncovered by this research might owe more to the demographic differences between councils, and the varying costs associated with administering parking schemes.

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