Abuse of disabled parking spaces must be stamped out as demand for them is set to grow.
That is the message of campaigners and councillors as the blue badge scheme has been extended to cover a wider range of disabilities.
Lancashire is leading the way in the North West when it comes to offering disabled parking spaces, new research has found – but it lags behind the rest of the country.
And since Friday, people with “hidden” disabilities like autism and dementia are now able to apply for a blue badge parking permit.
The move has been welcomed by disability rights groups but has sparked concerns ranging from demand for spaces to the public reaction to motorists legitimately using a blue badge when they may not appear to be disabled.
The blue badge scheme allows people with disabilities affecting their mobility to park closer to their destination, by using disabled bays and areas where parking restrictions may usually be in place.
Blue Badges can be used in vehicles where an eligible disabled person is the driver or a passenger.
A study by confused.com found there were 73,182 blue badge holders in the Lancashire County Council area and 1,786 disabled parking bays.
That works out to one space for every 40 blue badge holders. In other parts of the North West, the ration was as high as one space for every 120 people with a blue badge.
Blackpool Council, whose figures were not included in the study has a space for every 35 pass holders, with 238 designated bays and 8,472 register badge holders.
But both lag behind the national average of one space for every 30 eligible vehicles.
One aim of introducing changes to the blue badge scheme is to improve public understanding so people whose disabilities are not visible will be able to use the badges without fear of being challenged unfairly.
Coun Peter Buckley, Lancashire County Council’s cabinet member for community and cultural services, said: “Extending the blue badge scheme is important in ensuring that people with hidden disabilities are able to travel with greater ease and live more independently.”
“This change is very much welcomed and will particularly be of help to those living with conditions that might not be obvious but which certainly affect their daily lives.
“Those with hidden disabilities or reduced mobility often find that the anticipation of finding a car park space can heighten the stress of a journey.
“I hope that going forward, many more people with less visible problems will be able to do the things lots of us take for granted more easily – whether that’s shopping, going to see the doctor or maintaining relationships with friends and family who provide vital social support.
“It represents an important step in the right direction and is certainly a watershed moment. It is the greatest change to the scheme in 40 years.”
The launch of the changes to the scheme also coincide with a DfT review looking at how councils can tackle fraudulent use of blue badge permits and improve the consistency of council enforcement.
The review will also look at improving public awareness about the eligibility rules for badges – when it can and cannot be used – and how to return a badge when it is no longer needed, such as when the holder dies.
Coun Buckley added: “I hope that the review being carried out by the DfT will help to crackdown on dishonest use of the scheme.
“These improvements are much welcomed.”
Blackpool-based disability campaigner Stephen Brookes said : “I think there needs to be more visible disability parking that does not neccesarily need a blue badge to use them.
“What there definitely needs to be is better monitoring of the parking so the people who are abusing the systems are moved on. However sometimes disabled people are challenged by parking wardens.
“Better signage and more disability parking bays in Blackpool would be better for blue badge holders getting round as well.”
Mr Brookes said it’s “essential” the new extension to the blue badge scheme is well publicised so everyone knows there are a range of people who will have a blue badge.
He said: “I am pleased the scheme has been extended to include people with hidden disabilities however I am concerned about the reaction of the public as some people can be quite abusive if they accuse someone of using a disabled bay without knowing what their disability is.
“It’s essential our authorities and media make people aware that it’s not ok to abuse and victimise people using disabled badges when they don’t know what the disability is.”
In Blackpool, all spaces in council-owned car parks in Blackpool – except the Talbot Road multi-storey car park – can be used free of charge by blue badge holders, increasing the number of spaces available.
Blackpool Council said by offering free parking for blue badge holders in all but one of its car parks, it was going beyond its legal requirements.
A spokesman said: “This isn’t a statutory concession but it is something we have chosen to do so blue badge holders visiting Blackpool may not be aware as not all other areas have this concession in place.
“In addition to the designated spaces blue badge holders can park in on street pay and display space for free. Again information is available on the parking information boards.”