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Health Minister seeks deferral on removing hospital parking charges over ‘free-for-all’ fears

Craigavon Hospital Car Park

The introduction of free parking at Craigavon and Daisy Hill Hospitals may have to wait two years longer than planned as the the Health Minister is seeking a deferral to legislation.

Robin Swann will ask the Assembly to defer the measure, which was due to be introduced across NI hospitals on May 12, for a two year period.

Mr Swann’s intervention reflects practical obstacles with the planned introduction date as well as deepening budgetary pressures on health.

While the total removal of all charges would be deferred, car parking permits for eligible staff would be provided free of charge across the two year period.

The Minister stated: “The Hospital Parking Charges Act was passed by the Assembly in 2022 for the best of intentions. I was, and remain, entirely supportive of those intentions.

“However, there are logistical issues that make the planned May 2024 starting date for free parking unfeasible. HSC Trusts have advised that the infrastructure required to manage free parking cannot be in place in time. This is due to legal challenges delaying a contract for Automatic Number Plate Recognition technology.

“As a result, the intended traffic management solution will not be operational by May 12. In its absence, Trusts would have significant concerns about their ability to maintain safe access to their sites for patients, clients, visitors and staff. Preserving blue light routes would be a particular concern.

“In addition, it is unfortunately the case that the financial position for our health service has deteriorated in the past two years. A blanket removal of all charges would result in loss of income, resulting in £10m in costs per year in total to control access and maintain car parks.

“My primary concern as Minister is to protect access to hospitals for legitimate users. Free parking without traffic management could very quickly lead to a free-for-all, with serious consequences for traffic not just in hospital sites but in surrounding areas.”

The Assembly will be asked to agree to the deferral by accelerated passage, reflecting the looming starting date.

The Health Minister added: “It is widely agreed that the current budgetary situation will require difficult decisions by the Executive and Assembly. Deferring the introduction of free hospital parking certainly falls into that category.”

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