Mark Wallace of the TaxPayers' Alliance highlights the campaign against Westminster Council's £1.50 per day tax on motorbikes and scooters.
It is stating the obvious to say that people are unhappy and angry about the local tax burden. Council tax is officially the nation’s most hated tax, bills have doubled in a decade and charges and fines have soared in the same time period. Thousands of people are taken to court every month for being unable or unwilling to pay their council tax, and occasionally people go to prison in protest against it, but by and large the anger simmers below the surface.
It is quite an achievement, therefore, for a council to introduce a stealth tax so unfairly, so arrogantly and so hamfistedly that they would have over a thousand protesters, hundreds of them on motorbikes, turn up outside the Town Hall to attend a plain old committee hearing. And yet that is what Westminster City Council have achieved.
This Tuesday, the 31st of March, the Scrutiny Committee of Westminster Council will meet to consider the policy, currently in its “experimental” phase, of charging motorbikes and scooters to park in Westminster. Until last August it was free to do so, but since then a charge has been introduced of £1.50 a day, angering large numbers of residents and commuters, many of whom have deliberately chosen to travel on two wheels to reduce congestion and pollution at the urging of the Mayor of London amongst others.
£1.50 might not seem like a lot of money, but let us put this in context. Even if you were to buy an annual pass for your motorbike or scooter you would have to pay £150, which – ridiculously – is far more than an annual resident’s pass for a car.
As well as hitting the pockets of the people who have to pay this charge, it naturally has a sizeable effect on the local economy, too. Between August 2008 and January of this year, the charge had brought in £2.3 million. That would be a large amount of money to suck out of the local economy at the best of times, but to take £5 million a year at the height of a severe recession is madness. Westminster’s shortsighted cash grab will undoubtedly end up costing local jobs by pushing trade away from the area and taking money out of the pockets of local residents. By contrast, neighbouring Kensington and Chelsea are doing the right thing by introducing free parking to encourage business.
So given the negative impact the charge is certain to have on local residents, Westminster commuters and the local economy, why introduce it at all? According to Cllr Daniel Chalkley, the architect of the scheme, the funds being raised are to be put towards improving the parking bays available in the Borough. Unfortunately, this appears not to be true; since the advent of the scheme in August, less than 1% of the money brought in – a mere £23,000 – has actually been spent on parking improvements for bike or scooter users. In short, this is a revenue raising stealth tax – exactly the kind of thing that George Osborne, David Cameron and Eric Pickles have been promising an end to if people vote Conservative.
Unfortunately, the way some members of the council have behaved towards objectors is even more remarkable than the economic and political foolhardiness of the charges themselves. The policy is still officially in its “experimental” stage, meaning it is up for review on Tuesday and the opinions of the public, and particularly key “stakeholders”, are supposed to be welcome. Sadly, this does not seem to always be the case.
Despite receiving several thousand formal letters of objection, where a council might normally expect to receive a few score, and despite repeated protests, the council have made no attempt to offer concessions to the public on the scheme. In fact, they have actively set out to smear and disrupt the campaign against it (of which the TaxPayers’ Alliance is part).
From personal experience, I know that the protestors are a varied bunch of ordinary, nice people. Many of them are bikers and scooter riders, but many others are local residents who oppose tax rises and local business people who don’t want to see their trade harmed by excess taxation. All of them, including the two-wheel riders, are exactly like anybody else – a mixture of accountants, office workers, graphic designers, journalists, estate agents, housewives and so on. The council’s rhetoric in response to their objections, though, has been laden with abusive language – the protestors are labelled thugs, yobs and bullyboys, as if they are Hell’s Angels rather than decent, law abiding citizens. This demeans the democratic process, and is a shoddy way for anyone, still less an elected councillor, to behave.
The council’s attitude to perfectly lawful, peaceful protests has sadly been similarly abusive. Despite every single protest by the campaign being cleared with the police (as they must be so close to Parliament), the council’s leadership have constantly sought to imply that the protestors are illegal, disruptive thugs when in reality they are simply exercising their legal right to protest against something which they disagree with. Most absurdly, the council have been indulging in a PR campaign against this Tuesday’s protest on the grounds that it will “harm the local economy”, despite the huge financial impact of the charges themselves.
Most remarkably, as reported on ConservativeHome earlier this week, one member of the Scrutiny Committee which is this week scheduled to take a critical look at the policy’s trial period, has stooped to the level of dishing out abuse to members of the public who email her to register their concerns. In response to a polite email from a local businessman warning that protests would continue if the charges were kept in place, Councillor Susie Burdbridge dismissed his comments as:
“Bully-boy tactics until you get your own way. A common symptom of the male species.”
She then went on to announce that she was heartily in favour of the scheme. It frankly boggles the mind how any council could think it acceptable to have someone responsible for reviewing a policy who is willing to reject the concerns of perfectly respectable members of the public on the grounds of bizarre gender prejudices, and who openly parades their support for the proposal in question in advance of the hearing.
In short, this whole saga is a mess that gives Westminster City Council a bad name. For an authority who on balance have behaved sensibly with taxpayers’ money in recent years, on this occasion some of them seem to have abandoned their common sense, low tax principles and even their good manners. Introducing a stealth tax at all is never a good thing. Introducing when as a recession starts is even worse. Doing so with such an arrogant and dismissive attitude towards local residents and those whom you wish to tax is an out and out disgrace.
The protest on Tuesday 31st March starts at 5pm at Trafalgar Square, where there will be speeches, and the protest will move down to Westminster City Hall on Victoria Street by 7pm. All protesters are welcome, on foot or on motorbikes and scooters. For more information and to join the campaign, visit www.31st-march.com.