Saturday, 17 May 2008

Wisdom of Welsh parking obscured by context of devolution

Posted on Our Kingdom on 4th March 2008

The decision of the Coalition Welsh Assembly Government to scrap car parking charges at some hospitals from April has provoked an intemperate debate. "New NHS apartheid as free hospital parking to be rolled out in Wales... but not England" the Daily Mail cried.

No sense in "subsidising car parks" with NHS money, said English Health Minister Ben Bradshaw:

We don't think it makes sense to spend money that's currently being spent on patient care - getting people treated faster and better - on subsidising car parks. If that's what Scotland and Wales want to do, that's one of the joys of devolution. We're spending the money on improving patient care.

In Wales, you have to wait much longer for your operation; you have to wait much longer in A&E. You're not going to enjoy the extended GP opening hours that patients in England are soon going to be enjoying. Those are the priorities that we think the English patients are more interested in, rather than subsidising anyone who wants to park in a hospital car park for free.

Then the Welsh Health Minister Edwina Hart entered the fray with this:

sounds like sour grapes from the Department of Health because they've been probably having a lot of flak because they haven't looked at these issues themselves.

The Welsh media rightly sensed a row. The story then became about an unseemly spat between Cardiff and London: "the scalpels are out" declared the BBC's Welsh Political Editor. Just as the debate in Wales was turning into an inquiring one about the wisdom of the policy, Ben Bradshaw's intervention shifted the spotlight onto 'London interference.'

How is the Welsh NHS going to absorb the £5.4 Million loss of revenue? How is making it more attractive to take your car to an NHS site consistent with the Assembly's targets to cut carbon emissions? Isn't there some spin here given that four of the largest hospitals are exempt due to deals with private contactors and 50% of hospitals offer free parking anyway?

These are the questions that were beginning to emerge, and far from being a populist move the reaction on the radio phone-in programmes was revealing a very mixed response to the announcement. But this debate has been cut short because of an ill-considered intervention that allowed the story to become about the man from Whitehall knowing best.

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