By Mike Ribbeck and Sam Rkaina
Bosses and company leaders in Bristol have given a near unanimous thumbs down to plans to tax businesses to help pay for its controversial £200 million bendy-bus scheme.
As reported in yesterday’s Evening Post the city council is looking at charging firms for providing staff with parking spaces to help fill a £42 million hole in the budget for its Rapid Transit System.
The other option would be to increase business rates, but both measures are proving unpopular with firms across the city still struggling to cope with one of the worst recessions in living memory.
The bulk of the funding for the rapid transit system would come from a Government grant. The city council will discover in December whether its bid for the cash has been successful.
But the local authority still has to prove it has a viable business plan and the additional £42 million is seen as a vital part of the scheme.
Several meetings have been held with business leaders in a bid to win them over and a steering group is being set up.
Tim Kent, the council’s head of transport, is keen to get the business community onside.
He said: “One of the first questions I am always asked by business leaders is whether councillors have to pay for a parking space and the answer is yes.
“We have got an open mind but if we do introduce a parking levy then we have made it clear that no one will be exempt.”
But reaction from bosses has still ranged from cautious objections to outright hostility.
Guy Kingston runs his own commercial film company and is also chairman of the Bristol branch of the Federation of Small Businesses.
He said: “The bendy bus is a massively expensive white elephant that no one in the city has ever really wanted. They tried it in London and it did not work.
“The idea that business will be taxed will not go down well in the city.
“And the idea that we are being asked to stump up £42 million for a scheme that is not wanted and will not work is just outrageous.”
The council has argued that good transport links are vital for Bristol’s struggling economy.
But Mr Kingston said: “I can’t see that spending all this money on an elaborate scheme that does not even stop at Temple Meads is worthwhile in any way.
“This is simply a vanity project created by people who sit in committee rooms trying to think up ways of spending money.”
The outspoken boss of stock-broker Hargreaves Lansdown Peter Hargreaves was even more dismissive of the plans.
The Harbourside-based firm is one of the largest private employers in the city centre
He said: “I think it is outrageous that businesses have to pay taxes but then don’t get a chance to have a vote on the issues that affect them.
“Transport in Bristol is truly diabolical and everyone knows that but there is no intention in this policy to make it easier to get around the city.
“Everyone knows there is a hostility at the council towards cars, they want to make it as difficult as possible for people to get around the city.
“The simple fact is that we pay far too much in business rates as it is and most of that goes on paying for the ridiculous public sector pensions we have all been lumbered with.
“Transport in Bristol has been a mess for years and sadly I can’t see it getting any better any time soon.”
Tim Davies, a partner with property firm Colliers, said: “Everyone is agreed that there is a problem with transport in Bristol and the situation does need to be addressed.
“With the current doom and gloom there is a lack of activity in the office market in the city centre and now is not the right time to be expecting businesses to be coughing up even more money.”
Jayne Rixon, the current president of the Bristol Property Agents Association, is also opposed to business bearing the brunt of the costs.
She said: “There is no doubt that we do need to improve congestion in and around the city.
“But this is not the best time to be adding to the burden for businesses.
“Of the two options I think the parking levy would be the most unfair. It would penalise a small section of businesses and I have made my views clear to the council. Increasing business rates is not ideal but it is the best of the two options.
“What we don’t want to see is firms moving out of the city to avoid the charges.”
One voice of dissent in the business community is restaurant owner and entrepreneur Arne Ringner.
The man behind the Clifton Lido said: “Anything that improves transport in Bristol has to be a good thing and I think it is important that we all do our bit.
“When we opened the Lido with no parking spaces people thought we were mad.
“We get 400 visitors a day and the bike spaces are always full, people just learn to adapt.
“So long as the charges are reasonable then there is nothing wrong with us all doing our bit.”
But there are also concerns from opposition politicians to the Liberal Democrat-backed scheme.
North Bristol Tory MP Charlotte Leslie said: “My initial reaction is that we need to be thinking long term. Penalising businesses is one of the last options we should be looking at.
“If government money is available then it’s better Bristol has it than doesn’t, but we need to think big.
“I will be very concerned if we jeopardise small local businesses in Bristol for the sake of one single scheme.
“Unless we get to grips with the big infrastructure changes we will be looking at tiny transport initiatives from now until kingdom come.”
Conservative group leader on the city council Peter Abraham added: “We will oppose this tax on the motorist in every way we can.
“It will be counter productive and it shows that the bendy bus scheme, that we already have serious doubts about, has not been thought out properly.
“We are concerned the £1 a day charge will not be enough and will have to go up.
“Businesses have started coming back to Bristol but this will push them out again.”
Bristol East MP Kerry McCarthy said: “If you’re looking at a choice between the workplace levy and an increase in business rates I think the levy would be better.
Bristol’s Labour leader Peter
Hammond said: “You’re asking people who are contributing to the congestion problem rather than
hitting all businesses across the board. We have got to tackle public transport and it is a fairer solution.
“Labour councillors believe that the ever expanding gap between what the Tory-led government is willing to fund in terms of major transport improvements and the level of contribution expected from Bristol is worrying.
“The fragile local economy and job creation should be our priorities, as must the impact of any new parking levy on lower paid workers and those working unsociable hours.
“The crude introduction of a workplace parking levy or supplementary business rate, if ill-thought through, could harm our chances of recovery, impact on jobs and weaken the competitiveness of Bristol.
“If the Government is serious about helping our communities and businesses sort out our transport problems then it should properly resource potential solutions.
“Equally the council should recognise that agreeing a proposal with a £42 million funding gap to be filled
by a hastily devised ‘fix’ supported by very few may not enjoy either the confidence of Government or Bristol itself.”