Cash-strapped local authorities are looking at every conceivable way of trimming their costs, and some of their measures have been impacting and aggravating faith communities in recent months, such as through the withdrawal of free transport for pupils attending faith schools.
Since last summer, when Westminster led the way (albeit it was forced to rescind its own plans on 19 January 2012 in the face of strong opposition, including from Churches), city councils up and down the land have been planning to raise additional revenue from car parking charges, both on street and in car parks, especially in the evenings and on Sundays.
The trend was highlighted in the Sunday Times of 22 January 2012 in an article entitled ‘Councils Cash in on Sunday Parking’. This was underpinned by a YouGov poll commissioned by the newspaper in which 70% of the 1,711 adult Britons interviewed online on 19 and 20 January said that councils were not justified in charging for parking on Sundays. Opposition rose to 78% among the over-60s, the age cohort which contains a disproportionate number of churchgoers (although it is naturally not suggested that this was the sole or main motive for this oldest group objecting to paying for parking on Sundays).
The problem for the Churches is that there are still many historic places of worship in city centres, whose congregations are not primarily local, but come from a distance, often by private transport. Sunday parking charges, therefore, may conceivably affect both the quantum of worshippers they attract and the amount of money in the ‘collection plate’. It is sometimes alleged that Sunday car parking fees are ‘a tax on churchgoing’.
Are these fears well-founded? Unfortunately, there is little evidence to show, as yet, since the planned charges have often not come into operation. One small piece, however, derives from Nottingham, where charges for Sunday parking were introduced on 20 November 2011. A report in the Catholic Herald for 3 February 2012 quotes the Dean of St Barnabas Roman Catholic Cathedral as saying that, as a direct result of the parking fees, its congregations are down 10% and its monthly income by £2,000.
Some towns, of course, have long charged for the use of their car parks on Sundays. A row of a different sort erupted last year when it emerged that Woking District Council had been allowing worshippers at three central churches to park in its Victoria Way and Brewery Road car parks on Sundays for free since 2003, even though shoppers had to pay. A request under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that £55,864 had thereby been saved by these worshippers between 1 January 2009 and 30 June 2011. The scheme, which was denounced by the National Secular Society as a potential breach of the Equality Act, is currently under review by the council.