Hospital parking charges should be abolished in England, too

Hospitals should be properly funded through general taxation, not propped up by a tax on the sick.

Hospital parking charges are widely resented by patients, visitors and staff. They exploit a captive market and disproportionately hit those with the most serious medical conditions, clashing with the core values of the NHS.

Variation across the country suggests that free parking can be achieved. Most Scottish and Welsh hospitals now offer free parking but the average daily cost of parking in English hospitals is £7.66, ranging from £2 to £24 a day or up to £3 an hour.

By collectively pooling resources through taxation, Britain created a more just and efficient healthcare system than the pre-WWII muddle of charity, local government and private providers. It makes little sense to exclude hospital car parks from this spirit of fairness and mutual support.

Although hospitals sometimes offer discounts to groups such as cancer patients, including all hospitals in Northern Ireland, this is only patchily implemented and does not go far enough.

Three main arguments are typically used to justify parking charges.

First, charges keep shoppers and other non-patients away from hospital car parks. Technology, such as a stamped ticketing system, already exists to reduce this problem without charging patients.

Second, charges are justified on environmental grounds such as a ‘carbon reduction strategy’.

This simply punishes patients who have little choice because demand for parking is so inelastic: even as prices increase, many people do not have a viable or cheaper alternative and will just have to grudgingly pay up. Most octogenarians with severe arthritis are not going to cycle to hospital, whatever the cost of parking.

The final, and more plausible, justification for parking charges is that hospitals have a funding model dependent on car parking revenue. Some hospitals have been criticised for making large ‘profits’ from parking charges, but this is a reason to change the wider system that offers hospital trusts a stark and artificial choice between cheaper parking charges and cuts to patient care.

The current government presents parking charges as a local decision made by local trusts, but parking charges are the result of national policy and can only be abolished with national direction and funding.

There is an unusually broad alliance in favour of abolishing or at least reducing parking charges, from cancer charities to right-wing pressure groups. The Taxpayers Alliance- an organisation that wants to radically reduce government spending and calls for deeper austerity – opposes parking charges on pragmatic grounds:

“Taxpayers have already paid for the construction of the hospital and the car park. Why must they pay twice when they are unfortunate enough to have to make use of the facilities?…Talk about kicking someone when they are down.”

Ending car parking charges does not have to be a left-wing mission to ensure consistency with the radical, collectivist principles on which the NHS was founded; it is merely a case of providing patients with a service that should have been included in the taxes they pay. Hospitals, including the maintenance of hospital grounds, should be properly funded through general taxation, not propped up by what is effectively a tax on the sick.

Of course, supporters of parking charges are right to point out that funds to end car parking charges must still come from somewhere else, even if it does not necessarily have to come from cuts to patient care. The government says it would cost ‘more than £100million’ to abolish the charges.

To put this into perspective, £100million was a low estimate of the revenue raised from the 50p tax rate, a sum that was dismissed as ‘next to nothing’ by George Osborne.

It is hard to believe that one of the wealthiest countries in the world can afford to publically provide enough hospitals for everyone, but cannot find the relatively small amount of money needed to deliver the car parks to go with them. Scotland and Wales managed it, and the rest of the UK can too.

As compulsory competitive tendering in the Health and Social Care Bill threatens the core principle of a comprehensive healthcare system delivered by the public sector, hospital car parking charges are not the most important issue facing the NHS right now.

They are, however, a much smaller barrier to a fully comprehensive and fair healthcare system that is more straightforward to put right.

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