A "STEALTH tax" and "obscene" - that's what furious protesters branded the astonishing £20,000 a day raked in by City of York Council from parking charges and tickets.

The Evening Press used new Freedom of Information laws to discover the huge amounts being collected from motorists by the authority as part of our Stop The Highway Robbery campaign.

City chiefs defended their policies, but admitted without the vast sums they made from parking and tickets council tax bills would have to rise by a further SEVEN per cent.

We discovered that while residents' were petitioning councillors and complaining about the imposition of draconian evening tolls in 2004, council bosses in the authority's environment and development department were watching huge sums roll in.

The service, which covers on-street, off-street, residents' parking, parking fines and season tickets, brought in a total of £7,474,000 into council coffers in the last financial year - the equivalent of £20,000 a day. That figure has soared since 2000/2001 when just under £5 million was collected.

The latest figures have sparked fury among the city's parking protesters.

They have branded the charges a "stealth tax" and said the authority's policies had caused untold damage to city businesses.

Paul Abbott of Micklegate Post Office, one of the strongest voices in the Evening Press Stop The Highway Robbery campaign, said the figures were "obscene".

"If anyone would care to walk around Micklegate they will find the streets are empty," he said. "Trade is absolutely at its worst and this is not just my perception.

"Parking charges are not just a stealth tax, they are a punitive tax. We suffer from very large car parking charges in York. You pay your regular taxes and then you are taxed again."

His views were echoed by Graham Audus, of the Fossgate Traders' Association, who organised a petition to protest at the council's parking policies.

He said: "It's clear the council can't afford not to have car parks in York - despite encouragement to use Park&Ride.

"They are making so much money that I can't understand how they can justify putting the prices up. They should freeze them for the next five years."

Long stay car parks, despite a reduction in the number of available city centre spaces in the last few years, provide the most cash to the council, with St George's, Marygate and Union Terrace the highest earners.

But it is not only on car parks where the council makes its money. During the last 12 months, traffic wardens in the city issued 28,734 penalty charge notices - the highest yearly figure since enforcement was decriminalised in October 2000. That equates to an average of 78 tickets a day.

Those tickets, brought in £736,000 in fines - more than double that of 2000-2001 when just 10,526 tickets were dished out.

But the figures do not surprise Neil Robertson, who was fined after parking wardens handed him a ticket while his car was parked on his drive at Beaconsfield Mews, Acomb.

"I think the council is greedy. If these tickets were issued for blatant parking on yellow lines then fair enough, but it is also for little errors that drivers make," he said.

"Where is all this money going? They put taxes up, yet they are getting all this money from parking and parking fines."

Council chiefs decided Mr Robertson's car was parked illegally after claiming it was resting on yellow lines - at the end of his driveway.

Edmund King, of the RAC Foundation, said such revenue was becoming more and more important for councils which retained responsibility for parking tickets.

"Since parking offences were decriminalised, we have found that objectives have changed as local authorities have much more say," he said. #"It used to be about helping traffic flow, now it is more about raising revenue." In 2004/2005 the council spent nearly £3.2 million on operational costs and enforcement and administration over parking, leaving a handsome profit of some £4.1 million - the equivalent of £11,445 a day.

Respark income also doubled, from £283,000 to £508,000, following councillors' decision to increase the amount homeowners paid to park in restricted areas.

Brian Anderson, of the Transport and General Workers' Union, said city residents who would have to pay the price if tourists decided to ditch York's car parks. I am absolutely disgusted by these figures," he said. "The only thing this policy has hurt is local people and businesses."

Len Cruddas, chair of York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, said: "We appreciate the financial difficulties that the council is faced with because of the unfair system of allocation regarding central Government grants.

"I think it is unfortunate that they seem to have to balance the books in this way. Whichever way you look at it, this issue does seem to have a detrimental effect on businesses."

City's transport chief defends the charges motorists face

COUN Ann Reid, the council's transport chief, today defended money collected from motorists.

She said all surplus funds from the car parking account was re-invested back into transport related initiatives.

"This money funds all the subsidised bus services and gives additional money to highway maintenance as well as traffic signal and bus shelter maintenance," she said.

"Without this, we would need to increase council tax by over seven per cent to raise the same income. The council has been using car park income to improve transport provision in the City since 1982.

"Car park charging is also part of the wider traffic management of the city and the relationship with Park&Ride and stage carriage bus services has played an important part in keeping peak hour traffic levels in the city at 1999 levels and helps to provide an overall integrated traffic management scheme.

"The car parking account is audited and its use approved by the National Audit Office since October 2000.

"Another significant use for car park income is in improving the quality of all of our car parks for the users.

"All the car parks are well surfaced, lit and covered by 24 hour CCTV. It is also the only form of income that we receive from non York residents to help offset the provision of other services that we provide."

Updated: 10:08 Wednesday, April 27, 2005