Outside Cleveleys Health Centre, Kelso Avenue, a war of words has broken out between an ex-serviceman and the family of a local thalidomide victim.
Joseph Bannon can drive a vehicle adapted to his needs but cannot walk, so must find a disabled parking space with sufficient room to let him exit from the driver seat, and transfer into a wheelchair in the rear passenger seat.
“People assume if you’re driving you’re not disabled,” says Joseph. “Or they assume you’ve some means of reaching a wheelchair in the back. I’ve no legs so can’t get that far!”
A dispute with a neighbouring driver, also displaying a Blue Badge in one of just two specialist spaces, shows how high feelings run on the issue. One of Joseph’s relatives is taking the driver to task. “Why are you parked here? It’s a wheelchair space, and you can walk,” she says.
The disbelieving ex-serviceman responds: “I’ve every right. I’ve got a badge. Do you want to see my war wound? I got it in Northern Ireland – fighting for you.”
Joseph, a driver for 35 years, shrugs off the dispute. “You learn to put up with quite a bit in my position,” he adds. The drug Thalidomide, prescribed to pregnant women for morning sickness in the late 50s and early 60s, was withdrawn after causing severe deformities – missing limbs, in babies. The Government only got round to formally apologising to victims last year.
For Joseph, living with the consequences, the Blue Badge is a boon. “The trouble is I’d be better off in one of those spaces for mothers with prams. We need more wheelchair-only spots, with spaces alongside, and behind. Space is tight in most places. And people do abuse the system.”
Indeed, the moment the disgruntled ex-serviceman drives away, a supermarket delivery van occupies the neighbouring disabled space.
Reforms of Blue Badge laws, starting in April, transfer the bulk of responsibility for establishing eligibility to local authorities, rather than rely on a GP’s discretion.
“Often doctors have a relationship with patients and want to look after their interests,” says Sue McGraw, head of Customer First for Blackpool Council, who will be leading the new assessments, with support from the Disability Information Service, at Whitegate Drive, Blackpool. “We think it needs to be independent.”
The council’s allied enforcement squad also have new powers to investigate abusers, whether people flouting the spirit of the scheme – which is solely to assist disabled users with limited mobility, or crack down on others using fake Blue Badges, or copies, acquired on the black market. Illegal badges cost the taxpayer £46m a year. Some relatives use badges after the holder’s death. Enforcers will be able to confiscate badges on the spot.
Blackpool Council’s civil enforcement supervisor Andrea Frazer points out Blue Badges are already investigated “and if a misuse occurs we send out a misuse letter, and if it continues look at revoking the badge.” There is also an anonymous “report it” link on the council website. Some grey areas remain such as whether parking on a disabled spot and displaying the holder’s badge in order to pick up the holder is acceptable. Assessor McGraw is adamant this is an abuse of the system and refers drivers to the “rights and responsibilities” section of Blue Badge guidelines. “By rights, the holder should be in the car.”
There are 88 disabled spaces including existing bays in and around the town centre. There are roughly 9,000 badges are in circulation locally, renewed every three years.
“They are not issued for temporary conditions, for knee or hip replacements, or for people undergoing chemotherapy, because these are conditions which, in theory, are likely to get better. We don’t give them out like sweets. They must be for people with genuine permanent or substantial mobility problems. This system will be fairer for all. Some are too proud to express how disabled they are.”
While there’s a general consensus on the need for tougher safeguards, Blackpool South MP Gordon Marsden is concerned more stringent checks and assessments will make “people with genuine disabilities jump through tighter and tighter hoops.”
James Webber, chairman of Blackpool-based Action for Better Access, also questions the increase in charges, from £2 to £10, the first price rise since 1983. “I don’t see why we should pay more when we pay for a licence to have a vehicle.”
Blackpool-based disability consultant Stephen Brookes, a member of the TUC disability committee, and coordinator of the disability hate crime network, says: “Many disabled people are not too unhappy about changes to the scheme.
“Abuse is actually quite wide. It is possible to buy a forged badge in Manchester for around £75. I see frequent abuse in and around Blackpool. It makes my blood boil to see predominantly young fit people leap out of cars with a Blue Badge. It gives everyone a bad name. It is a crime and it needs to be taken seriously. Changes which improve matters are helpful. In some cases GPs may have been a bit lax. Assessments will be mainly by independent health professionals so the main issue is of initial assessment timing.
“For the real user the rising levels of badge fraud mean that those who genuinely need these spaces find them taken by people who don’t.”