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'A cynical way to make money out of frail, injured, diseased, dying visitors'

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I want to say something about the bastards (Can I say that? Well, I have) that have imposed automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) at the Princess Alexandra Hospital car parks in Harlow.

Implemented with insensitivity and no noticeable advance publicity, this seems little more than a cynical way to make pots of additional money out of frail, injured, diseased, dying, frantic-about-friend-or-family visitors, because we have no real alternative.

From one point of view – theirs – it is a much more efficient way to make money. For a start, you don’t have to pay anyone to do anything, like wandering around car parks looking for expired parking tickets. Instead, you install machines to keep an eye on our coming and going that work 24 hours a day for no wages.

ANPR simply takes pictures of your number plate when you arrive and, later, when you leave. Then a machine somewhere works out how long you’ve been there and calculates your parking fee. You put that amount into another very-hard-to-understand cash-collecting machine or pay over the phone (usually within 24 hours). All very clever and everyone is happy.

Well, not really, because you and I are unhappy at how expensive it is (nothing new there, as far as hospital parking is concerned) and how difficult and time-consuming the few-and-far-between cash-collecting machines are to use, and because of that you’ve flipped into the next pay band at a cost of another few quid. The operators, of course, are deliriously happy because the only person they have to pay is the bloke that occasionally empties the cash from the machines, and he knows where they are!

If you don’t pay within 24 hours the machines look you up on the big number plate machine in Wales, or wherever it sits, to find out who you are and where you live, then fine you for not paying, by post. I think it was £100 the last time I looked, halving to £50 if you pay up quickly. But the best is yet to come.

Since the new system has been introduced, if you are unfortunate enough to be disabled and have a blue badge, you now have to pay for what was once free.

Now please don’t misunderstand me. Parking bays for the disabled are generally positioned very close to the entrances of places because the users of them can’t walk very far, if at all. That of itself doesn’t justify free parking. What does, however, is the long walk there and back that, as a disabled person, you might have to take to find a payment machine. And, of course, there are some disabled people who cannot work because of their disability, so they could also be a little strapped for cash. You may find it hard to believe, but these bays are in great demand at hospitals (Hmm!), so they are always full, or nearly so, and can therefore earn a potentially high income for the car park operator.

Now, I ask you to imagine the stereotypical little old lady or aged gentlemen who is disabled and having to make regular trips to outpatients. For years they have done so and used disabled bays and have not had to pay. Suddenly the rules change and now they do. But nobody has made a big thing of this, so they don’t notice the change and don’t pay.

Within a few weeks they get the letter from the machine that tells them they have to pay a £100 fine, but if they pay within the next few days it will be half that. No polite little paragraph that says “As we have recently changed the system we will let you off this time, but don’t do it again”, just an intimidating demand for payment.

Being a blue badge holder, I was tipped off verbally in advance of the changeover by a caring nurse. Thus forewarned, the next time I visited I decided to check this out.

The new car park operators have put small information boards in all the various car parks at PAH that refer to, but don’t actually contain, the new terms and conditions when using the car park. If you look carefully you will find a sentence that says all of the new terms and conditions of the car park apply equally to disabled drivers, but it doesn’t specifically say that one of these terms is the need to pay a fee. Even the tariff boards that say how much to pay don’t have any text that specifically says “this tariff applies equally to blue badge holders”, so unless you were forewarned, like me, you wouldn’t know.

This is so very simply overcome by putting large print signs adjacent to disabled bays that say very specifically “Even with a blue badge you will still have to pay to use this parking bay”. But why should the operators go to the expense? After all, if you do pay, they get £2.99 from you for four hours' parking, which is nothing compared to the £100 they’ll get if you don’t.

Nice little wheeze, I’d say – and cynically targeted at those of us in our caring society that are most likely to make the mistake. Bastards! Oh dear, I’ve said it again.

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