On Monday May 9 at 7pm, Save Our NHS Leicestershire held a special meeting to discuss Leicester City Council’s proposed Workplace Parking Levy and its implications for public health. The Levy will affect workplaces with 11 or more car parking spaces by asking them to pay £550 per space per year. It is a controversial policy. Its supporters say it will bring in ‘transformational investment’ into Leicester, ‘with match funding totalling some £450million’ over ten years. This, they say, will be used to drastically improve the cities’ bus services, and radically overhaul the city’s cycling and walking networks, in turn benefitting the environment. Its critics, on the other hand, which includes much of the trade union movement in Leicester, say it is an unaffordable stealth tax on workers, that workers have no choice but to drive to work because the lack of a reliable alternative, and that the policy will only alienate ordinary people from the fight against climate change.
Mags Lewis, a spokesperson for the local Green Party, spoke in favour of the levy and Michael Barker, who is the Unison Leicester City branch delegate to our campaign, spoke against. Both were invited to give opening comments of 7 minutes, before throwing the discussion open to the wider meeting for comments and thoughts, followed by closing remarks from the guest speakers.
The discussion revealed unanimity amongst the speakers and our members on the seriousness of the climate crisis and need to fight it. There was consensus on the negative impact of exhaust emissions on public health, the need for mass transit as opposed to individual transportation, as well as the need to transition away from fossil fuels toward renewables. However, as is often the case with these things, the disagreement was not so much with the aspirations, but with how we get there.
The Workplace Parking Levy is described by Leicester City Council as a tax on employers. Taken at face value, this raises questions about employers who, like the NHS, are funded by the public through general taxation, and whose budgets are already extremely limited. The NHS faces multiple crises at present, but one of the biggest is funding. NHS funding has not kept pace with rising need over a period of many years, resulting in excessive loss of staff, deteriorating services and longer waiting lists,. We are concerned that by taking much needed resources out of hospital budgets, the levy has the potential to deepen all of these crises. The same can be said for other publicly funded institutions such as schools and council offices, for example.
In its list of exemptions, the City Council proposes that the NHS will get a 50% discount for the first three years of the levy, thereafter it will be required to pay the full cost. We are concerned that any levies on the NHS at the current time are a threat to public health because it will be directing urgently-needed funds away from patient care.
Even though the levy is described as a ‘charge on employers’, in Nottingham where a similar policy has been in place for many years, 8 in 10 companies passed the levy directly on to workers through cuts in pay (although in Nottingham NHS workers are exempt from this tax – an option Leicester City Council has decided not to pursue). We see no clear evidence that the same would not happen here. In Leicester, the levy is predicted to impact a total of 26,000 workers, 4,000 of whom work in the NHS. We are concerned about the impact this levy would have on an already-existing recruitment crisis in our health service. There are currently more than 110,000 NHS vacancies nationally and there are chronic staff shortages in Leicester’s NHS. In June this year, a survey undertaken of 13 NHS health unions, including the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), Unison, Unite, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) and the GMB, revealed that 1 in 5 NHS workers are already actively looking for alternative employment or have arranged to leave the NHS because of low pay. This is hardly surprising. Many NHS workers face an extremely precarious financial situation. Indeed, several NHS trusts, including University Hospitals of Leicester, have felt compelled to set up either food banks or food voucher programmes to help their staff cope with skyrocketing living costs in recent months. If it goes ahead, the Levy could seriously aggravate this crisis on a local level and make Leicester’s NHS a less competitive employer. It hardly needs to be said that without its workforce the NHS would not function, posing a serious risk to public health.
We are also concerned about the impact that this additional tax burden will place on individuals and families – including those of NHS workers, but also the other 22,000 affected workers – and its very serious implications for public health. There is a well-established link between growing rates of poverty and ill-health. Any additional costs imposed on households living below, or close to, the poverty line will be difficult or impossible to bear. Even those who are not living close to the poverty line are facing the highest rate of inflation for forty years with RPI currently running at 12.3%, and another huge rise in energy bills predicted for this Autumn amid fears the price cap will be raised to over £3,000. This is against a backdrop of more than a decade of stagnant wages. The cost of living crisis is a direct threat to a huge portion of the working population. The Levy would be a further factor in pushing people into indebtedness or deeper into poverty. Aside from the moral question of whether or not this is right, we are very concerned about the very serious impact on public health it could have which in turn would put further strain on the NHS and related services.
The City Council, and indeed the Green Party, point out that the policy will benefit those worst off because the poorest in society cannot afford to drive cars. The 2011 census found that 37% of city households had no access to a car or van, although this figure is likely to have reduced since then. The City Council found in 2019 that 22.5% of Leicester’s population experienced income-related deprivation and poor households are disproportionately more likely to be households where individuals have no access to a car or van. Such households are likely to benefit from a reduction in city traffic whilst not directly contributing to the costs of the parking levy. However, there will be many in low-income households, as well as ‘just coping’ households, who use or own a car. For some of these, there will be no perceived alternative to driving to work: for example, because of inadequacies in the bus system or because distance or carer commitments makes walking impractical. Without practical alternatives, such individuals will be required to contribute to the costs of the levy but will be in too precarious a position to do so without incurring significant harm to household finances. Getting people out of their cars is essential, both for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and for improving public health through improved air quality and other beneficial effects. However, this must not come at the cost of pushing more households into financial precarity and poverty. While it is tempting to see price mechanisms, such as the workplace levy, as useful tools in changing behaviour for reasons of environmental sustainability, the regressive impact of such price mechanisms must be addressed. The real impact can be appreciated only by understanding the way in which the measure, in this case the levy and its indirect effects on working households, interacts with other aspects of society. These other aspects of society include a tax system which, is regressive overall, high levels of working poverty, a woefully inadequate bus system and a cost of living crisis, whose effects are likely to be felt for years to come.
Finally, we have serious concerns about the impact the levy could have on the practical issue of building the climate movement. The climate crisis is amongst the most profound health crises our species has ever faced. Tackling it will require extremely far-reaching solutions; in our view, it will require a transition away from a system that prioritises private profit to one that emphasises human and environmental need. We are concerned that the levy takes us away from building such a movement. Of course, we understand that everyone will need to make significant changes to their lives in order to fight the climate crisis, but if they are to be successful, policies with this intention must be carried out in a way that wins people to the necessary changes. We believe that this is not only possible, but also completely necessary. Historically, real and fundamental progressive change has only been won with the support of the majority of people in society, and the active participation of a large minority. Without winning people to this movement, the entrenched power of those who benefit most from the status quo cannot be effectively challenged. For the reasons discussed here, we are, at present, unable to support the Leicester City Council proposals.
 The discussion was originally intended to take place on April 25but was postponed in order to try to secure a City Council speaker; unfortunately we were unsuccessful in doing so. We are grateful to Mags Lewis for agreeing to speak in favour of the levy.
 Patients waiting for elective care at University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust have among the longest waiting times in the country and severe delays are also experienced by patients in the Emergency Department. Leicester shamed as one of the worst A&E handover waiting times in the country – Leicestershire Live (leicestermercury.co.uk), December 10, 2021, and Warning over Leicester Royal Infirmary’s emergency care – BBC News, July 15, 2022.
To be clear, the other 22,000 affected workers include all people (aside from frontline blue lights services) who drive to a workplace in the city limits with 11 or more car parking spaces. This includes, but is not limited to, council workers, education workers, care workers, those in manufacturing, post, engineering, office workers, factory workers, etc.
 Leicester Royal Infirmary was recently issued a warning by the Care Quality Commission, who cited “staffing levels, waiting times, as well as delays in treatment and ambulance handovers” as areas of concern. Warning over Leicester Royal Infirmary’s emergency care – BBC News, July 15, 2022.
 Should Liz Truss succeed in her Conservative Party leadership bid and abandon the new Health and Social Care Levy to reduce the ‘tax burden’, it would be ironic to impose a new tax in its place through a local Parking Levy.
 An Economic Impact Study done for Leicester City Council by De Montfort University showed that “while the rate of car use is highest for the ‘top grade’ of senior managers (68%) the rate of car use is still high (45%) for those in ‘lower grades’.”
 According to the Centre for Better Ageing, not only is life expectancy falling (by 0.3 years for women and 0.4 years for men), “the number of years we can expect to spend in good health, without a disabling illness, continues to decline; this is now 62.4 years for men and 60.9 years for women.”