At the weekend, the Daily Mail ran a story highlighting the results of a recent Freedom of Information investigation I conducted into the cost of hospital car parking. This involved asking every hospital trust in England how much income they had received through charging for car parking, for each year since 2001. This issue has always been an emotive one, which strikes a chord with many people’s experience of the NHS. It is easy to understand the concerns people have when the data revealed that hospital trusts have received over £1 billion in car parking charges in the last ten years, £160 million in the last year. This has more than doubled in the last decade. Incidentally such charges only exist in England- they were outlawed in Scotland and Wales in 2009. An average trust receives just over a million pounds a year from car parking.
Not all hospitals feel the need to charge to excess – for example Hinchingbrooke Hospital under Circle’s management has introduced a flat daily rate of £2.50 for all visitors, and have scrapped the instant fine system for those without tickets. Moreover, Trafford Hospital in Manchester abolished parking fees entirely in 2010, making the reasonable point that visiting a hospital was already costly enough in terms of stress and time. If some of the best trusts in the country realise that patient experience- including before they enter the hospital building- is central to achieving better quality treatment, then it seems clear that other trusts should be following their lead.
The issue of NHS car parking charges has always been a thorny one. After all, it still costs money to operate a car park and at a time when budgets are tight it is important to scrutinise them line by line for potential savings. That said, in their present form parking charges hit the elderly, the chronically ill and the poorest hardest- as a flat fee they could barely be more regressive. It is also the sort of bread-and-butter issue that genuinely affects patients and their families each and every day. Attending a hospital can be a difficult and stressful experience without having to continually watch the clock before the meter runs out, or worry about being heavily charged for parking or fined.
Conservatives can press for the big ticket items on the NHS- reform, accountability, GP commissioning and a renewed focus on clinical outcomes. But these do not translate easily into practical communication. By comparison, for someone who is struggling to get by on a small fixed income – pensioners in particular – an extra few pounds coming out of their pocket on a regular basis matters.
We need to be able to tell a compelling narrative of our record on the NHS, which includes addressing other injustices – health tourism by foreign nationals being another example that I have campaigned on. The point is not the money involved, but the need to be on the right side of the argument, and that means being on the right side of hardworking people whose taxes pay for the NHS. Because as the dust settles after the Health and Social Care Act, most people will not be talking about who is commissioning their NHS treatment. They will be asking why their local hospital is making £4 million a year from car parking – a hospital that they have already paid for once through their taxes.