FERMANAGH and Omagh District Council has said it cannot support proposals by the Western Health Trust to increase car parking charges at three of its hospitals.

The Trust has put forward plans to permanently increase charges for ‘paid-for’ spaces in car parks at the South West Acute Hospital (SWAH), outside Enniskillen, the Omagh Hospital and Primary Care Complex and Altnagelvin Hospital.

From November 1 last year, the Trust introduced a temporary rise of 20p per hour for individuals who were staying in the ‘paid-for’ spaces for up to four hours.

It currently costs £1 to park in one of these ‘paid-for’ spaces at the SWAH for up to one hour.

The Trust is proposing to implement this increase in charges on a permanent basis from April 1 this year.

A public consultation process on the proposals began in December and is due to run until Friday, March 16.

A draft copy of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council’s response to the consultation was brought before a meeting of the local authority’s Policy and Resources Committee for approval last week.

In it, the council states that hospital car parking charges, and the proposed increases, would have the most significant impact on the most vulnerable groups within the community.

The document states: “It is interesting to note that currently, in Westminster there is a Bill which will undertake its ‘second reading’ in the House of Commons in March 2018 entitled ‘Hospital Car Parking Charges (Abolition) Bill 2017-19’.

“The proposed Bill, proposing the abolition of all hospital car parking charges, aims to give peace of mind to patients, visitors and hospital staff – many of whom may be already struggling with the ever-increasing cost of living.”

While the Council’s document acknowledges that the Trust has to maintain its car parks, and pay for their annual upkeep, the local authority warns that increasing charges which would impact upon vulnerable groups was “not an acceptable means” of providing that funding.

The consultation response states: “The Council feels strongly that there should be provisions in place to ensure that those who are gravely ill, as well as their families, are not put under further financial stress and ensure that car parking charges are not just seen as a further ‘tax on the sick’.”

In the document, the Council also restates that the proposed increase in hourly car parking charges for the hospitals in the Western Trust area was “substantially higher” than the average local hourly car parking rate – both in private and public sector.

“The proposed increase in charges (for one hour) will be on average 40p more expensive than private car parking providers, whilst it will be 60p more expensive than the average local publicly owned car parks – in both Omagh and in Enniskillen,” the response outlines.

The Council has urged the Western Trust to put “alternative arrangements” in place before implementing the proposed increase in charges.

It has suggested that the Trust aim to improve the management of car parks, particularly around the enforcement of car parking infringements.

The Council claims that this may result in a “natural increase” in car parking return.

It also calls on the Trust to work jointly with local transport providers, particularly rural transport providers, to encourage more individuals to use public/ rural transport when attending hospitals for appointments or visiting.

The consultation response states: “Public transport within the Fermanagh and Omagh District has been under constant threat over the last number of years due to budgetary constraints.

“A joint approach between the relevant statutory agencies, public transport providers, rural transport providers and the Trust could assist in providing more transport opportunities to hospitals – from urban and rural areas within the District.”