A council has been criticised over plans to remove a concession that offered free parking at work for disabled members of staff with blue badges.
Newcastle City Council wants to charge its 18 disabled members of staff to park at work for the first time.
The plan had been to charge them £750 a year, but the council has now settled on £250, following protests.
The council also plans to start charging all blue badge-holders to park in the council’s public carparks for the first time.
Blue badge-holders will receive two hours for the price of one, but some protesters say this is still unfair and have suggested the first three hours should be free, as that is the length of time blue badge-holders can park without charge on double yellow lines.
The union Unison believes that charging badge-holders for carpark use will cause traffic congestion, as drivers may choose to park for free on yellow lines instead.
The council also wants to force all lower-paid staff – who currently pay about £130 a year for their parking – to pay £750 instead, the same amount as most higher-paid staff, a move described as “regressive” by Unison.
A petition opposing the parking changes – which describes them as “unfair, unjustifiable and discriminatory” – has secured nearly 700 signatures in just over two weeks.
Angela Hamilton, who set up the petition in her role as Unison’s disabled members’ officer at the Labour-run council, said there had already been a “really positive” reaction, with at least one local Labour MP signing it.
Hamilton said: “Disabled people who have blue badges do not have the choice to walk to work.
“They are having to pay the petrol costs to drive into work, and then to be charged again to park is unfair. A free parking space is a reasonable adjustment.”
One disabled member of staff has said she will have to choose between paying £1 a day to park, or meeting the cost of her £1-a-day lunch.
Hamilton said: “So it’s either that she parks or she buys lunch, because she can’t afford to do both.”
Hamilton said the council was “not listening and not responding” to their concerns.
The council has partly defended its decision to raise charges by claiming it will invest some of the new funds in clamping down on blue badge abuse, and supporting the city’s Shopmobility scheme, even though it has also increased membership charges for the scheme.
The proposals are due to be decided by the full council at its budget meeting on Wednesday (4 March), and could be introduced at the end of April.
Helen Dolphin, director of policy and campaigns for Disabled Motoring UK, which has given its views on the proposals to the council, suggested that a free parking space for disabled staff could be seen as a reasonable adjustment for those who could not walk to work or use public transport.
But she said the council would not be the first local authority to remove free parking from its carparks because of being forced to “look at where every pound is spent”.
She said: “We are finding it harder and harder to justify saying blue badge parking should be free, except that [charging]pushes people into parking on the streets.”
And she said that some badge-holders would still prefer to use carparks rather than on-street parking, because they were safer.
She said: “Our charity’s own policy is that it should be three hours free… but two for one, most people would think is reasonably fair.”
When asked whether scrapping free parking for disabled staff was “unfair, unjustifiable and discriminatory”, and would mean removing a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act, a council spokesman said: “In our opinion, we do not believe that these measures are discriminatory.”
On the other concerns, he said that blue badge holders would still be able to park for free in all of its 1,500 on-street, city centre parking spaces, and in 200 dedicated disabled parking bays, while it could increase the number of these disabled spaces following a review.
He said the council’s carpark charges were “significantly cheaper” than those in private carparks, and that the parking subsidy for lower-paid staff was being removed because “we do not subsidise other staff travel, such as public transport”.
He said that Shopmobility costs £100,000 a year to maintain, so the council was seeking external sponsorship and looking at extra income to help ensure the “very important” service was “sustainable”, while the increased charge for membership would be the first in nearly 15 years.
And he said the council was now spending more on tackling blue badge abuse, having identified about 300 cases of misuse over the last year.
He said: “Due to reduced funding from central government, the council is reviewing all of our services to deliver fair choices in tough times.
“We believe that the proposals to charge blue badge holders is fair through the reduced charges and this compares favourably against all private operators in the city.
“We do not believe that this will cause any congestion as our disabled bays will be fully accessible – and at the best locations – therefore supporting badge holders with mobility problems.”