There ought to be parking permits specifically for wheelchair users like the BBC’s Frank Gardner
— Boris Johnson
Suppose you’re in the car and you are looking for somewhere to park. In fact, you’ve been looking for somewhere to park for the past 25 minutes, and the kids are starting to hit each other and the windows are fogging up so that you have to rub them with your sleeve. People behind you keep hooting because you are going so slowly, and your stressometer needle is edging towards critical as you drift further and further from the place you need to be ; and then suddenly you see a space — a gap between a row of cars of at least six axe handles in length. Enough for you to park!
Triumphantly, you indicate and inch towards the space in question. And then what do you see, when you draw abreast ? You see that the space is reserved for disabled drivers, and there are no disabled drivers currently using the space. Is there anything more frustrating ?
Well, yes, of course there is. Let us suppose you are yourself a disabled driver, and you desperately need to park so that you can unload your wheelchair and get on with your life. You, too, have been going round and round in the traffic, looking for a space where you can legally station your vehicle. At last, you see a haven, a blue-badge zone, and you start to make towards it ; and just as you are about to indicate to begin the parking manoeuvre, a car shoots past you — blue badge in the window — and then, with all the insolent grace of a Las Vegas valet parker, the driver reverses into your spot and bounds out, whistling, remote-locking with a backwards squirt of electrons, and leaving you to get on with your search. That is the everyday experience of Frank Gardner, the BBC’s excellent security correspondent.
As everyone knows, Frank was shot by al-Qaeda, while on an assignment in Saudi Arabia in 2004. In spite of severe damage to his spine, he has gone on to make an extraordinary recovery. He skis and he reports for the BBC from around the world, and yet he still needs a wheelchair. He needs space, he explains, to park his car and get out his equipment. “For me, it’s often a question of physics. I can’t park in between other cars like a normal driver because I need to open my car door wide enough to bring my wheelchair alongside. The few disabled parking bays are almost invariably taken up by blue-badge drivers I’ve seen walking to and from their cars.” Frank’s point is that the benefit of blue-badge parking has been extended so widely that it now fails to help those who need it most.
This week the Government is announcing another attempt to reform a system that currently awards 2.5-million blue badges to drivers across the country. There is talk of new independent medical tests, after auditors revealed a few years ago that about 16,000 blue-badge holders were shamelessly using the entitlements of dead relatives. According to yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, ministers think that as many as half of all blue badges could be going to people who don’t need them. If so, that is an extraordinary statistic and we must of course wish the Government every possible success in its attempts to stamp out fraud. If it is really true that so many people are effectively swindling the councils out of parking charges, then that is deeply unfair and expensive for the law-abiding.
I think we are entitled to wonder, however, how much success the Government will have in pruning the scheme. The iron law of benefits is that once they have been conferred, they are almost impossible to remove — witness the rage of the middle classes at the decision to means-test child benefit. For every instance of a blue badge that is being flagrantly abused, and rightly removed, there will be hard-luck and borderline cases ; and, if the campaign to rein back the blue badge is pursued too zealously, one can imagine that local papers will become full of sad stories — of public-spirited people who could no longer ferry the elderly and infirm, because they lacked the necessary permit, and so on.
It is highly unlikely, in short, that the new anti-fraud campaign will reverse the current expansion of blue badges — and, even if it did, it wouldn’t really help Frank Gardner.
The numbers have already boomed so astronomically that the central London boroughs — Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Camden and the City of London — have successfully sought exemptions from the normal rules. Blue-badge drivers are normally allowed to park on yellow and double yellow lines, and if that happened in central London, the whole place would seize up. It’s not just the UK blue-badge holders who would be entitled to park indefinitely on double yellows on narrow and congested main roads. The privilege is, in principle, available to any blue-badge holder in Europe. Average traffic speeds (which I am proud to say are inching up to about 9.4 mph) would collapse back down again.
So the obvious answer is to do as Frank himself suggests, and create a new category of wheelchair-using disabled driver. He believes that the number of genuinely severely physically disabled people who drive cars is relatively small. There cannot be that many people who need to move into their wheelchairs, he says, and he would therefore like a special W sticker — agreed by the central London boroughs — for people in his position. They would have special rights to park on yellow lines, to take account of their special circumstances. It is an interesting idea, and I propose that we take it forward.
Of course, there may be those who complain that this will create “two tiers” of disabled drivers, and “devalue” the blue-badge sticker. The trouble is surely that the scheme is already at risk of being devalued. We are a warm-hearted species, and we like to confer benefits on as many people as possible, but if you expand an entitlement too recklessly, you end up reducing its value for everyone, and especially for those who need it most.
Boris writes for The Daily Telegraph on Mondays.