HOSPITAL car parking charges have come under the spotlight once again after a survey revealed one English trust had issued more than 18,000 fines in a single year, while another had clamped 545 vehicles.
The 2011 Which? investigation followed Freedom of Information requests to 147 acute hospital trusts in the country that have A and E departments. They were each asked a number of questions including the cost of parking; available payment options; the availability of priority spaces; the number of times they had fined, clamped or towed vehicles; and what concessions were available.
It's possible to provide great parking provision for patients and visitors with support for priority patients, no clamping, and a range of options on how to pay for parking
As a result, all trusts have now been pinpointed on an online interactive map, showing the state of play across the country.
The title of best-performing hospital is shared between the Royal Preston and Chorley and South Ribble hospitals, both run by Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. A Which? spokesman said: "They've shown that it's possible to provide great parking provision for patients and visitors with support for priority patients, no clamping, and a range of options on how to pay for parking."
The hospitals also both achieved the maximum scores for informing consumers on concessionary policies and consulting with them on parking issues.
We know people coming into hospital often have a lot on their minds and they don't need the added hassle of worrying about parking
The most-improved site this year was St Helier Hospital in Surrey. Last year it scored poorly in a number of areas including clamping and a lack of payment options. But, after meeting with Which? representatives after last year's report, Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust launched its Big Conversation, a consultation aimed at improving parking. Using last year's results as a spur for action, they stopped clamping altogether as of June 2010 and introduced new options to make payment easier for visitors. Visitors can now pay for their parking with a debit or credit card rather than cash. The trust also scored well on concessions for regular hospital visitors and telling car park users about those concessions. Commenting on the news, trust chief executive, Matthew Hopkins, said: "We promised to listen to our patients and visitors, as well as staff and volunteers, and that's exactly what we have done. Being named as the most-improved across the whole of England is a fantastic achievement. We are making significant changes to the way our car parks are run, including stopping clamping and making sure patients and visitors are refunded for their parking if their appointment is delayed by more than an hour. We know people coming into hospital often have a lot on their minds and they don't need the added hassle of worrying about parking. That's why we've identified key changes that will make parking at our hospitals as stress-free as possible."
But it is not all good news, with some hospitals being singled out for criticism. They include University Hospitals of Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, which issued a whopping 18,561 tickets; St George's Hospital in Tooting, which clamped 545 cars over the year; and the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, which charges £6 for two hours parking.
Although some hospitals have improved their parking provision after our investigation in 2010, there are still too many that are failing patients
Following the publication, Which? is calling on hospitals to review their services, introducing fair charging systems and flexible payment options, providing support for priority patients, and giving clear information to all users. A Which? spokesman said: "Freedom of Information research shows that although some hospitals have improved their parking provision after our investigation in 2010, there are still too many that are failing patients. Frequent problems include a lack of information on concessions for regular visitors, no alternative payment options, high charges and excessive clamping or ticketing of hospital patients and visitors."
The survey showed that 73% of people who have parked at an NHS hospital in the last two years have experienced a problem; and 51% said parking made their visit more stressful.