Notes from Big Ben …
Hospital Parking and the British Parking Association Charter
By Peter Guest
Historically, the British National Health Service (NHS) did not charge for hospital parking, and numerically, it indeed is still true that most public hospitals in the UK still have free parking. However, as car ownership and use has grown, parking has become more congested, and gradually more and more hospitals have introduced charges.
This has been done for several reasons. The NHS does not fund parking facilities at hospitals, so each has to fund its parking outside the health service budget. At many of the bigger center-city hospitals, parking had become the local free lot, meaning that local workers or even hospital staff usurped the spaces provided for patients to the point where people were missing treatment because they couldn’t park.
In one location where the district hospital sat between the local prison and a teacher training college, the hospital’s outpatient services were almost brought to a halt by this problem, until a small charge finally freed up the car park for the patients it was meant to serve. Finally, of course, it provided money, and more than one hospital CEO was able to counter complaints about parking charges by pointing to a new piece of medical equipment and hence a new form of treatment that was paid for by the parking surplus.
People complained, of course, and in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the regional governments instructed NHS properties to remove parking with, in some locations, a return to precisely the sorts of problems the charges had eliminated. Trying to fix these problems has resulted in unwieldy bureaucratic systems and attempts to introduce penalty charges for abusers, which, of course, are completely contrary to the government’s “no parking charges” edict.
The Westminster government has been barraged with complaints that they haven’t abandoned charges in England. The government had suggested that hospitals should make special provision for people who had to make multiple trips to hospitals or were spending long periods there. The idea was that hospitals would give people such as patients being treated for cancer or having dialysis a season ticket or pass that would limit their parking costs. This was to ensure that patients needing long courses of treatment in a health service that was “free at the point of delivery” wouldn’t find themselves unable to attend because they would have to pay parking charges, which were set to deter city workers.
This is a genuine problem. Chronically ill people are often unable to work, and if they have to attend hospital several times a week, the charge could simply be unaffordable to someone surviving on a small disability allowance. Similarly, hospitals were asked to use both common sense and a little basic humanity when dealing with those who are visiting seriously or terminally ill patients. The last thing someone needs having sat with a dying relative is to find that they have to pay a big parking charge or indeed even a fine.
Sadly, I know from my own experience that such occasions can be dealt with sensitively and sympathetically. However, the problem was that some hospitals just simply failed to understand and deal with these issues adequately, leaving sick and distressed people with large parking bills at a time when they were most vulnerable. The level of basic stupidity involved in some of these incidents is just mind-blowing.
One hospital operated a simple system where, if a patient were delayed unreasonably in their treatment, the clinic manager would simply sign out their parking ticket and they didn’t pay extra parking. The hospital replaced a “pay the man” system with a pay-on-foot system and removed this capability. Unfortunately, for six months after the parking system changed, the hospital continued to send out appointment letters saying the concession was still available. The problem was resolved only when reception staff faced with managerial indifference and patient abuse started to give the disgruntled drivers the CEO’s direct phone line.
Anyway, the parking issue is still unresolved in England, and a recent government consultation has done little to address it. Therefore, working directly with the NHS Confederation, the NHS’s trade association, the British Parking Association (BPA) has prepared and published a “Hospital Parking Charter.” The purpose of the charter is to encourage health service providers and their car park operators to sign up to a self-regulating scheme that will allow charging within a regime that recognizes the special situation faced in a hospital environment.
The charter can be downloaded from the BPA website at www.britishparking.co.uk/files/Documents/hospital%20parking%20charter.pdf. The key objectives of the charter are to:
• Improve the standards of car park management and customer service.
• Provide clear signage and well-maintained car parks.
• Provide reasonable parking tariffs.
• Take best practice advice from organisations such as the BPA and NHS Confederation.
• Advertise concessions, such as those available to chronically ill patients.
• Ensure appropriate levels of disability provision.
• Take a flexible approach to cases where unforeseeable circumstances have led to parking contraventions.
• Ensure enforcement is appropriate.
• Encourage all car park operators to join the scheme.
In my opinion, the scheme’s heart is in the right place, but even in the statement of its key objectives, the dead hand of bureaucracy can be seen. What about “apply a pinch of humanity and an ounce of common sense”? This pretty much covers what is said above.
I cannot help but wonder if a manager like the guy above who took out a concession and then took six months to realize what he had done will actually be capable of coming to grips with this. I fear he won’t.
Peter Guest is PT’s correspondent on all things European and Middle East. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Article Abstract from June, 2010