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The Department of Health has recently published updated guidance on NHS patient, visitor and staff car parking principles. This announcement pre-empted a planned back bench debate on Hospital car park charges and the Hospital Car Parking Charges (abolition) Bill is now due for a second reading on 6 March 2015.
So why isn’t it free to park at a Hospital in England already? After all, it’s free in Wales and Scotland, isn’t it? Well, in reality, there’s no such thing as a free parking place – somebody is paying for it. This is true everywhere, whether in town centres, at the beach, in the countryside or at the hospital. Like most NHS medical services, some car parks may be free at the point of use but someone, somewhere is paying for their upkeep and maintenance. If they are patrolled to keep them safe someone is paying for that too. Your so-called free parking is always paid for by someone else – is that fair?
When parking charges were abolished in hospitals in Scotland and Wales, patient accessibility didn’t improve; instead, nearly all the spaces were taken up by commuters and staff to the detriment of visitors and patients. And because demand isn’t managed properly it spilled onto yellow lines, grass verges and nearby residential streets. In some cases bus companies actually refused to offer a service because they couldn’t get through. So, it seemed like a good idea, but those that relied on public transport, those very people that MPs champion for, ended up the hardest hit (see panel).
The moral question
When the Trust or healthcare facility decides that it is best to employ contractors to manage parking on their site, the BPA advocates that the operator should belong to an Accredited Trade Association (ATA). The BPA launched the very first ATA, the Approved Operator Scheme (AOS), in 2007 and it currently has over 150 members. The Scheme is designed specifically for those BPA members that are providing parking management and enforcement services on private land or in unregulated public car parks. The AOS is supported by the BPA Code of Practice for Parking Enforcement on Private Land and Unregulated Car Parks.
With over 34 million cars on UK roads, it is unlikely that there will ever be enough parking space to meet demand. The Government expects this number to increase by more than 40 per cent by 2050, meaning that car parking will need to be shared fairly and properly managed even if it is free. How do we pay for that?
The moral question is, should healthcare budgets be used to provide parking facilities? And who for – staff, visitors or patients? At the BPA we strongly believe that healthcare budgets, which are under all kinds of pressures, should be used only to provide healthcare services. Many bus users don’t get free travel, so why should car users get free parking? And can the Trust afford to allocate so much land and resources simply to park cars? How much NHS resource should be used for parking?
The BPA charter
There is nothing new in the government’s recent announcement; there already existed guidance for those who need to manage parking, published by the BPA, with support from the NHS Confederation and Healthcare Facilities Consortium (HFC). Our Healthcare Parking Charter aims to strike the right balance between being fair to patients, visitors and staff, ensuring facilities are managed effectively for the good of everyone – which includes rationing space and developing priorities when demand outweighs supply.
The Charter, first published in 2010, and fully revised in 2012 is for everyone involved in the provision and management of parking in the NHS. It identifies the importance of car parking policy in terms of the wider transport strategy, the need to properly manage traffic and parking for the benefit of everyone who attends hospital or healthcare facilities, as well as being a good neighbour too.
24 NHS Trusts have currently signed up to the Charter, confirming that they agree to abide by the principles set out within. In addition 55 BPA members including car park operators, suppliers and service providers have also added their signatures. A full list is available from the BPA’s website. The Charter covers areas such as: high standards of management and customer service; clear and easy-to-understand signs and information; appropriate access control and payment systems; and crime reduction. It also speaks of dispute resolution and appeals, as well as engaging contractors and third-party service providers.
Concessions for those in need
So, what about concessions and priorities for the long term sick or those who visit frequently? Surely exceptions should be made for these groups. In its announcement, the government line is that concessions, including free or reduced charges or caps, should be available for a number of specific groups including disabled motorists, frequent outpatient attendees and visitors with relatives who are gravely ill or with relatives who have an extended stay in hospital. The BPA agrees and also advocates concessions being properly explained and advertised too. Who is best placed to do this? Is it the role of the Trust to communicate this information to patients or the parking operator or both?
The Healthcare Facilities Consortium (HFC), and the BPA (who have worked for a number of years), very much agree there should be concessions for certain groups (and many of our members already do this), provided these can be managed in a cost effective way: at present, the administration of schemes can be costly which of course depletes the amount of money available for reinvestment.
Additionally the BPA’s Health Care Parking special interest group allows the sharing of knowledge and best practice, as well as allowing campaigning for better recognition of the services provided and the need for them to be properly funded. Its next meeting is on 25 November.
Making parking work
We welcome the public debate and clear national statements about car parking at healthcare facilities. Healthcare parking will also feature in the forthcoming annual conference programme on 15 October. NHS Trusts and those who operate on their sites are encouraged to attend this high profile event and participate in the discussions with key stakeholders.
BPA members are clear that parking management is about keeping our streets and car parks safe, free from obstruction caused by indiscriminately parked cars, helping buses and cyclists and improving road safety, keeping children safe when they come out of school, protecting spaces for residents or particular groups of users such as disabled people, and enabling servicing and deliveries to take place in our communities and high streets that would become congested if parking wasn’t properly and effectively managed. That costs money. Who pays for it? We all do if it’s not done properly.