"Shocking disparity" in number of blue badge permits approved for applicants with non-visible disabilities

Date published: 08 January 2021

People with non-visible disabilities or impairments face “shocking disparity” when applying for a blue badge parking permit, a new investigation by the BBC has found.

The blue badge parking permit scheme was extended in August 2019 to include people with non-visible disabilities and impairments, such as autism, Parkinson's disease, dementia and anxiety.

However, scores of local authorities had lower approval rates for blue badge parking permits from non-visible disabilities applicants than those with physical impairments.

The BBC Shared Data Unit obtained Freedom of Information Act responses from the upper-tier councils in the UK following the first year of the new criteria.

For ten councils – including Rochdale – the difference was so stark, it was more than 50 percentage points between the two types of application.

Since the new criteria was introduced, 289 applications for blue badges under non-visible disabilities were received in the Rochdale borough. 148 of these have been refused under the criteria, whilst a further 64 applications were refused due to an incomplete request. Just 59 applications (20.4%) were approved.

When extended to physical disabilities and impairments, 831 were directly refused locally – 150 due to being incomplete. The approval rate rose to 77.4% - with 3,742 applications granted of the 4,833 received.

Neil Thornton, director of resources at Rochdale Borough Council, said: “If an applicant is eligible, a badge will be issued and we issued 3,920 last year.

“There are currently 10,347 in use across the borough. However a health condition or illness doesn’t give automatic entitlement to a blue badge and we must assess all applications thoroughly following Department of Transport guidance. 

“Non visible disabilities applicants are asked to explain how their condition affects them walking, along with any coping strategies they use and/or medication, as well as providing appropriate evidence and supporting documentation. To assist we will always contact an applicant if clarification is needed and have a robust appeals process. Even if an application is re-reviewed and still refused, we provide a clear explanation of the decision.

“Blue badge processors are trained to follow latest national guidance and have access to occupational therapists when required.

“We have to ensure there is an enduring and substantial disability before awarding a badge and cases are regularly reviewed internally to check the correct decision has been made.”

James Taylor, executive director strategy impact and social change at disability equality charity Scope, said: “This new data shows a shocking disparity between the allocations of blue badges to people with invisible and visible impairments. Our Helpline has also heard from disabled people with hidden impairments being denied a blue badge, for 'not qualifying'. 

“This research highlights the urgent need for staff training of the decision makers in the councils, so they can recognise and understand the range of hidden impairment. Councils need also to understand the devastating impact their negative decision can have.”

The Department for Transport said it would review the impact of the new criteria.

The blue badge scheme was first introduced in 1970 to make access easier for disabled people.

It allows holders to park for free in pay-and-display spaces across the UK and for up to three hours on yellow lines.

At the time the data was gathered, 6% of parking across the Rochdale borough was designated for blue badge holders (89 spaces). Guidance from the Department of Transport currently states that 5% of street parking be designated for blue badge holders.

The local figures include the full capacity of the town hall car park, which has since been closed due to renovations of the Grade-I listed hall over the next few years.

The bulk of the existing car park will be redeveloped into a new pedestrianised area.

General parking spaces totalled 1,493 with most disabled spaces being found on The Esplanade, in Rochdale town centre (15), followed by Rochdale Leisure Centre and Middleton Arena (12 each).

Excepting town hall square and Dunelm car park on Whitworth Road, the remainder of local council car parks had five or fewer designated disabled spaces.

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