Driven to distraction by the charge of the green brigade

July 18, 2003

Efforts to force cars off campus through parking fees have enraged academics. Mike North reports.

The fight started with an email. Three weeks ago, on the last day of term, staff at Durham University got an unpleasant surprise. They were told that they would have to pay up to £0 a year to park their cars on campus. The news did not go down well.

A university spokesman admitted that the charge was "not going to be universally popular". A mixed reception was expected. But an attempt to soften the blow by listing the fees that other universities charged - from £112 at Leeds to between £77 and £387 at Northumbria - may have backfired. For among the recipients of that email was a sharp-minded statistician.

David Wooff, the director of Durham's statistics and mathematics consultancy unit, is used to seeing through numbers. The charges seemed to be "way out of line", he says. "I'm a statistician, and I don't like being misled by selectively chosen examples. I wanted to collect data honestly."

So he set about mobilising the UK statistician community via Jiscmail, the academic online communication service, to help in his fight against Durham's charge. He wanted to know if the examples quoted by the administrators, which he felt had been used to make Durham staff "realise that we are being reduced to a shared misery", stood up to analysis.

The response was swift. Within a few days, Wooff had received enough data from colleagues to compile a league table of parking charges for 54 UK institutions. Just under a third charged nothing, and the average for the rest was about £114. Wooff believes the figures show that Durham's sample was unrepresentative and that the proposed levy was perhaps unreasonably high. As The THES went to press, the university council was discussing the staff reaction to the parking levy.

Wooff's survey provides more than just ammunition for his battle against Durham's charge. It also reveals the spread of charging for the privilege of parking on campuses and the anger it arouses among academics.

Durham and other universities around the country are trying to discourage car use. Durham says it instituted charges simply as a matter of "housekeeping", raising money to pay for the upkeep and security of campus car parks. But a university spokesman says the charges also form part of a strategy to cut car use. This has been matched, on Durham's Stockton-on-Tees campus, with moves to persuade staff to car share or use local bus services.

The use of such policies is on the rise. In May, the Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability (Heps), which is supported by the funding councils, published Travel Planning for Sustainability. The document calls on universities to introduce schemes to provide environmentally friendly access to learning to all parts of the community and to provide staff with a choice of transport.

The report highlights parking charges as a way of "dissuading" people from driving to campus, though it stresses the need not to be "anti-car". It notes that there is "now incontrovertible evidence that a degrading environment is impinging visibly, often terribly, on other policy areas: most notably human health, the economy, security". The report adds that with the right level of charging, university transport schemes could be made self-financing.

Sarah Wixey, a research fellow at Westminster University's transport studies group, says the government has since 1999 been pushing universities to work with local partners to draft travel plans. "If you have a large number of staff travelling by car, you have to have steps to encourage reduced numbers of cars," Wixey says. "One measure is parking charges. This is not a way of generating income, it is a way of encouraging staff to use alternative means of transport." But there is resistance, she says: "To put it mildly, it is proving to be an issue."

Wooff complains that many Durham staff have no real alternative to driving to work. "I'm not averse to a reasonable parking charge," he says, "but it should follow local investment in local transport, which [in Durham] is not good enough."

That sentiment is echoed at Birmingham University, where a proposed increase in the daily charge from 50p to 80p in the central campus car parks brought a furious reaction from staff. Indeed, management retreated after meeting with the unions last week. The charge will not rise, at least for 12 months.

On the eve of the negotiations, Sheila Peacock, secretary of the Birmingham branch of the Association of University Teachers, insisted: "It is an emotive issue. This increase is greater than our pay claim and inflation.

It's just the university kicking us when we are down." Allan White, vice-president of the AUT branch, added: "Universities seem to be competing with each other to see who can push charges the highest. All our members are up in arms about this." The battle is not over and the issue will return, he says.

Birmingham says its charges are intended to "discourage car journeys to the university and encourage staff to use public transport and walk to work".

This parallels the city council's policy of reducing traffic associated with the university and Heps recommendations. Birmingham hoped to spend the funds raised in this way on improving cycle and pedestrian facilities on campus.

But White repeats the objections about the lack of viable alternatives for staff. He argues that Birmingham needs an underground system and that public transport falls way short of what is needed. "University administrators don't understand the way academics work," he says. "We would find buses stopping at 6pm despite the fact that we have to work late.

Public transport is too inflexible."

At De Montfort University in Leicester, there is still bad blood after staff recently clashed with administration over parking charges. Neil Williamson, Natfhe branch secretary, says: "This is an issue close to the hearts of lots of staff because it's to do with quality of life." He insists that cars are essential for many staff. "They have to get to work easily and transport equipment and large amounts of marking, which universities are happy for us to take home," he says.

Williamson says the university shares staff concerns about mobility but is determined to discourage car use. Sarah Wells, green travel coordinator at De Montfort, says the policy includes the provision of shuttle buses to campuses, the encouragement of car sharing via an internal emailing system and the improvement of facilities for cyclists. One of the primary reasons for the plan is that "demand for parking always outstrips supply", Wells says.

Other initiatives have been rather imaginative. Derby University is running a pilot scheme in which it provides staff with electric bikes to use. Dave Turton, acting Natfhe branch secretary, says: "I would not fancy (riding on an electric bike) in the middle of Derby."

The solution at Southampton University was brutal but effective. "There is a very small number of parking spaces on the main site compared with demand," says Kiron Chatterjee, lecturer in transport planning, "so students are not allowed to bring cars on campus at all."

Chatterjee says that when the university looked at instituting a travel plan in 1990, it saw that there was little hope of expanding parking capacity because of competition for space from new buildings and opposition from the local council. The university's answer was Uni-link, a bus service that runs every 15 minutes to all parts of the university and to the city centre and the local supermarket. Students in halls of residence are charged for the service.

"Since Uni-link has been going, opposition has not been nearly as vociferous as you might expect. It's quite a good service and it's paying its way," Chatterjee says.

The Heps report recommends that parking charges be invested in alternative forms of transport, but some are sceptical about whether that will happen.

White says: "We were promised that all revenue from the (car park charging) scheme would be reinvested and spent on an integrated transport policy." He fears that action will fall short of this goal and admits that there are suspicions that some of the money might be spent on other things.

"Universities are short of cash," he notes.

Universities, caught between car users' reservations about alternative travel and the need to implement green policies, find it difficult to strike a compromise that pleases all. With the great variety in local situations and needs, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Disputes over parking charges seem likely to escalate as more universities confront the problem. Wooff's survey identified six institutions that were reportedly considering introducing fees in the next financial year.

Steve McCabe, Natfhe representative for the University of Central England, expects a recent dispute over UCE parking charges to return after a standoff. "It caused a furore," he says. "We had the most volatile union meeting we have had for many years. Management backed off completely. But we expect it will come back after the summer."

Independent parking consultant Alistair MacMillan, who advises universities on the subject, sums up the complexities of the matter: "It takes the wisdom of Solomon to solve the problems of parking." Given the national drive towards green transport policies, academics may be wasting their time wrestling with this brainteaser. Perhaps it is time for them to get on their electric bikes.

SUPER CHARGERS

  • Bristol £300 a year on average (the daily charge is 0.006 per cent of salary)
  • Greenwich £300 a year (main Maritime campus)
  • Surrey £231 a year
  • Strathclyde £200 a year (in city centre)
  • Bath £103-154 a year, £309 for named space
  • Northumbria £77.50 a year, £387.75 for named space
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