Applications for disabled Blue Badge parking permits reach a 10-year high
Blue Badge applications in Northern Ireland hit a 10-year high last year, with nearly 47,000 people given passes.
The badges are available to those with severe mobility issues and gives free on-street parking in many areas, as well as proving eligibility for disabled parking at businesses and public buildings.
The Department for Infrastructure granted a total of 46,691 Blue Badges in 2017 - an increase of more than 10,000 on the 34,204 Blue Badges granted in 2008.
Almost 900 applications were refused in 2017.
Ulster Unionist MLA Andy Allen, who is a wheelchair user and has a Blue Badge, said it was a "valuable scheme for individuals who have difficulties walking".
He believes the number of Blue Badges is proportionate.
"As a wheelchair user myself I see the positive effects the scheme," he said.
"We do see occasions where disabled parking and facilities are abused, but what I would say to that is it's important not to judge a book by its cover.
"You might be able to see if an individual is in a wheelchair or not, but you can't always tell if someone has a physical disability - so it is good not be so quick to judge in that respect.
"The department has a rigorous process for when a badge is awarded, and I am confident in saying Blue Badges are awarded in a proportionate manner."
Over the last decade the number of Blue Badge applications approved has moved upwards, with 2014 being the first year more than 40,000 applications were confirmed.
Figures also show the number of applications refused by the department, made due to the applicants not meeting the relevant criteria.
In 2017, 892 applicants for Blue Badges were rejected.
The highest number of refusals in the past 10 years came in 2010, when 1,096 applicants had their applications refused - 37,645 applicants had Blue Badges granted that year.
In the first six months of this year 18,547 applications for Blue Badges were approved by the department.
In the same period 585 applications were refused.
Between the start of 2008 and June 2018 there were more than 400,000 applications for Blue Badges approved by the department.
In coming years there could be an increase in the number of Blue Badges approved after an overhaul of the system was announced in July.
From 2019, individuals with less immediately obvious illnesses will have the same right to a badge, allowing them to park closer to their destinations as those with obvious physical disabilities.
In Northern Ireland, people eligible for Blue Badges are most commonly in receipt of the higher rates of Disability Living Allowance and the Personal Independence Payment.