Published: 09:18, 02 November 2017
Disabled drivers fear new technology set to be rolled out across the Canterbury district will spell the end for their entitlement to park for free.
The automatic number plate recognition barriers have already been installed on a trial basis in three car parks, where blue badge holders have been forced to pay to stay.
But the local authority this week moved to allay any concerns, promising a solution before the technology is installed permanently next year in 17 car parks in Canterbury, Herne Bay and Whitstable.
Among those to raise concerns is former secondary school head teacher Nicholas Hunt, whose daughter Sophie, 35, is a full-time wheelchair user since being left severely disabled in a horse-riding accident.
Mr Hunt, 66, is a member of an advisory panel that gives guidance to the council on issues affecting disabled people.
He said: “The current scheme in Pound Lane requires blue badge holders to pay while previously they had free access. If all car parks in Canterbury became barrier and camera controlled then the rights of the blue badge holder are seriously affected.
“The council said at the time it would only be a trial and when it continued there would be a way of providing for blue badge holders.
“That promise seems to have been forgotten.”
Mr Hunt said restricting choice and forcing those with limited mobility to walk further was cruel, and raised fears the “already disabled-unfriendly” city was becoming even more discriminatory.
The 66-year-old, who lives in Stelling Minnis, said: “A lot of disabled people are very poor and survive on benefits. They deserve parking near their destination and they deserve a concession on the price.
“Canterbury already has a reputation as a disabled-unfriendly city, with uneven pavements and not enough dropped kerbs. Disabled people will take their trade elsewhere. We haven’t used the Curzon Cinema since the trial was introduced in Pound Lane.”
Mr Hunt suggested the council could adopt a system used at the Dartford Crossing, where cameras recognise blue badge holders’ vehicles, or even install disabled bays outside the car park barrier.
Chairman of the council’s regeneration and property committee, Cllr Ben Fitter-Harding, says the needs of disabled people will not be forgotten.
"A lot of disabled people are very poor and survive on benefits. They deserve parking near their destination and they deserve a concession on the price" - Nicholas Hunt
He said: “We’ve not been able to offer disabled motorists the normal free parking in the trial ANPR car parks, as the technology available at the time of the launch did not make it possible. However, we’ve said since the start that we would look for a solution to this issue for the wider rollout.
“This remains exactly the position. We will be asking companies that bid for the tender to include options for disabled drivers as part of their bid when we go out to the market in the next few weeks.
“Bays for blue badge holders have remained throughout the trial and will continue to do so. Canterbury also has a dedicated blue badge holder car park located in Orange Street, behind the Beaney.”
The council hopes to fit barriers operated by number-plate reading cameras by the spring of 2019, with payment made automatically online or at the tap of a debit card.
Companies are being invited to pitch for the contract this month, with a winner expected to be chosen in the spring.
The cost of implementing the ticketless parking system has been criticised, with the council being urged to clean streets and deal with vandalism before splurging on a “vanity project”.
A total of £1.3 million has been budgeted for the technology, which will be funded largely from increased parking charges.
The extra money will also pay for £600,000 worth of city centre street improvements.
City councillor Nick Eden-Green says graffiti has been left so long in the “filthy and intimidating” underpass near Aldi, it is starting to peel off.
The Lib Dem councillor, who represents Wincheap, said: “It strikes me that £2 million is a lot of money for a council on its financial knees that is apparently unable to undertake the simple housekeeping jobs of cleaning our streets and dealing with graffiti.
“For the sake of tourists, residents and shoppers alike can Canterbury City Council please get to grips with the basics first and spend a few hundred on housekeeping before they spend a couple of million on vanity projects?”
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