Northern Ireland health trusts rake in £13m in car parking fees since 2015
Health Trusts here have raked in almost £13m from hospital car parking charges in the last three years.
Around £2.5m of that income came from charging staff to park their vehicles. One trust - the South Eastern - received almost £4.5m between 2015/16 and 2017/18, an investigation by this newspaper found.
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The figures will reignite the debate on hospital car parking charges.
Campaigners have described the fees as a tax on the sick.
Alliance Party health spokeswoman Paula Bradshaw said it was bitter blow to those with ill relatives.
"My mother passed away this year and we were at the hospital every day, and my dad was up sometimes twice a day," she explained.
"This is another slap in the face for those giving care to loved ones in hospital.
"Given the amount of care and support people visiting contribute, as well as spiritual and emotional wellbeing, this needs reviewed."
Hospital car parking charges are a relatively recent phenomena, and are decided individually by the trusts.
In 2008 guidance was published to promote greater consistency between the five trusts, setting out key principles including free parking for cancer patients and relatives who are caring for them.
At the time Health Minister Michael McGimpsey said charging was "a means of discouraging inappropriate parking by commuters and protecting spaces for patients and hospital staff".
In 2014/15, 10 hospitals charged for parking, up from seven five years previously.
Charges have since been introduced at Ards, Lagan Valley and Downe Hospitals.
According to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, health trusts here received a total of £12,982,376 from hospital parking charges over the 2015/16, 2016/17 and 2017/18 financial years.
The South Eastern Trust received the most, followed by the Belfast Trust, Southern Trust, Western Trust and Northern Trust.
Four trusts supplied details of how much health service staff paid for parking - a combined total of £2,495,208 in the three years.
The Western Trust did not record this.
South Belfast MLA Ms Bradsaw said it was "quite insulting" for staff to be charged for parking.
"Where there are charges in the hospitals, a lot of hospital workers park in neighbourhoods where people live, so everyone is paying the price for car parking charges," she added.
She called for a "policy review" that could also explore other initiatives such as free or subsidised travel on public transport for health care workers. "I would like to appeal to the health trusts to look at this," she added.
"We need a wider discussion around public transport."
Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: "Charges for car parking at hospitals are a charge on people who are unwell, levied on them because they are unwell.
"We believe that patients should not be effectively charged for being ill."
The South Eastern Trust received £4,494,000 in hospital car parking charges across the three years - nearly £1,051,000 coming from staff.
It has two charging car parks sites at the Ulster Hospital and Ards Community Hospital, and said staff working up to 32 hours per week pay £11 per month, and anyone working 32 hours or above pays £15 per month.
The trust said income from parking was spent on "depreciation cost related to car park barriers and associated infrastructure", such as pay machines.
In addition, the money was spent on the salaries and wages of staff directly associated with car parking, annual rates payable to Land and Property Services for car parking areas, and goods and services, such as maintenance of parking barriers and pay machines, as well as ticket purchase.
The Belfast Trust said it has four hospitals where parking charges apply.
For staff and visitors, these are the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast City Hospital and the Mater Hospital. Parking charges apply to staff at Musgrave Park Hospital.
The Belfast Trust made £4,295,011 from car parking charges across the three years, £1,354,992 of this from staff.
The Belfast Trust took over responsibility for the car parks on the RVH site from private car park provider Car Park Services (CPS) in October 2017. Income prior to this was retained by the private firm.
The trust said: "Car park income is used to offset operational and maintenance costs of the car parks. Any remaining income is used to support the operational needs of the trust."
The Southern Trust said it operates six charging hospital car parks - four at Craigavon Area Hospital and two at Daisy Hill Hospital.
Across the three years, the trust received £1,929,133 from these sites, £74,876 from staff.
The Southern Trust said that there is "no compulsory charging for staff".
It added: "There are voluntary pay car parking schemes for staff at both Craigavon and Daisy Hill Hospitals and the charge to staff for one of these spaces is £30 per month."
It said income from car parking charges pays for maintenance and security of hospital car parks, adding: "Without this income, funding currently used to pay for the care and treatment of patients would have to be diverted to pay to keep car parks operational."
The Northern Trust generated net revenue of £948,000 from its two charged hospital car parks at Antrim Area Hospital and the Causeway Hospital in the three years.
It said: "Staff do not currently pay to park.
"However, NHSCT operates a voluntary pay to park scheme, allowing a number of staff to pay for the privilege to park their vehicle in one specific car park, which is situated close to their place of work."
This scheme, which the trust says operates only in Antrim Area Hospital and commenced part way through 2016/2017, made £14,340 in 2016/2017 and 2017/2018 combined.
The Western Trust said it currently operates paid for parking on three of its hospital sites - Altnagelvin Area Hospital, the South West Acute Hospital and Omagh Hospital and Primary Care Complex.
The trust received £1,316,232 from the 1,160 spaces on these sites in the three years, but does not record whether staff are charged for parking.
It said: "On the three sites where paid for parking is in place this represents approximately 20% of the car parking spaces and is aimed at short term users of the site.
"The remaining 80% of car parking spaces are free of charge.
"All car-parking income received by the trust is used to fund the provision, maintenance and management of car parking on these hospital sites. This includes services such as security, CCTV, lighting etc."