Councillors, members of the public and disability groups have pledged their support to the Epsom Guardian's campaign to keep the blue badge free.

Last week, the Epsom Guardian called for councillors to vote against proposals to charge disabled people for parking in all council-run car parks in Epsom, as part of swingeing budget cuts, at the next full council meeting on February 16.

Councillor Sean Sullivan said: “Conservative councillors fully back the Guardian campaign just as we oppose all the cuts that affect the vulnerable in our community, and we will be proposing savings which mean we could keep the blue badge free.”

Disabled residents and groups have spoken out about the plans, arguing it takes them longer to carry out activities such as shopping than it does able-bodied people.

A member of a disability group, who did not want to be identified, said: “When I enter a car park, having pre-booked my Shopmobility electric wheelchair, I then have to try to find a space on the entry level floor only and then wait for the attendant to bring me the electric wheelchair.

“This usually takes at least 15 to 20 minutes to complete and exchange tickets. Then it takes longer to shop and get around in a chair and of course you can’t buy very many large items or bagfuls because there is nowhere to store it on the chair, or even on a scooter, so I need to do more trips to the shopping centre.”

Liberal Democrat councillor Jonathan Lees said: “We think it’s an appalling thing to charge blue badge users for parking. We know some people will struggle even to pay the money because of the position of the machines, which shows it’s an ill-thought policy that will impact on a group of people already vulnerable.”

'We can't reach to pay'

Disabled residents have complained they will not be able to reach some pay and display machines if council proposals go ahead.

Wheelchair users might not be able to reach the pay and display machines in council-run car parks, if the decision to charge is accepted at the full council meeting.

On the comments section of the Epsom Guardian website, reader tonycombes, from Woking, wrote: “Well done the Guardian for taking up the cause of local blue badge holders. Just how are independent wheelchair users supposed to access payment meters with kerb stones in the way, let alone reach up to pay from a sitting position?”

The Epsom Guardian has also learned that since our campaign started residents’ association councillors have decided to give one additional hour free of charge for blue badge holders at council car parks.

'Disability does not mean poverty' - Council leader Robert Leach

Councillor Robert Leach said: “The council is committed to meeting the needs of disadvantaged residents while being fair to all our council tax payers. Many tax payers are elderly, on fixed incomes, disabled without having a Blue Badge, or otherwise just struggling to make ends meet.

“Disability does not mean poverty. I know disabled people who feel patronised at being treated as charity cases and not allowed to pay their way. They pay the same prices for their food and other services. The borough council is simply moving into line with other local authorities and car parking bodies in regularising our charging structure.

“The particular needs of the disabled are still being met. There will be still be wide parking bays in convenient locations. An additional free hour is added to each ticket. We are spending £88,000 on improving access at Ashley Centre. Blue Badge holders may still park free on yellow lines.

“We are also still providing Route Call, dial-a-ride for the needy, shopping scooters in Ashley Centre, and even a free shopping service for those who need it. We are also still providing subsidised day centres, unlike many other Surrey authorities.

“We shall continue to review what services disadvantaged residents need, who is already meeting those, and where the borough council can meet any gap.

“I have seen much emotional rhetoric and political mischief on this matter, but I have seen very little rational argument. At a time of financial stringency, I believe we have made a correct decision that meets the needs of the disabled without patronising them, and achieves a balance between the needs of all our council tax payers.”

Disability chairman angered over email comments

A disability group chairman has reacted angrily to comments from a councillor about the disabled.

Councillor Robert Leach, chairman of the Residents’ Association group, has said in an email exchanged with Epsom Access Group chairman Geoff Jelly, he believed because disabled people paid the same for their food as able people, they should pay the same for parking as well.

Coun Leach told the Epsom Guardian: “Disability does not mean poverty. I know disabled people who feel patronised at being treated as charity cases and not allowed to pay their way. They pay the same prices for their food and other services.” Mr Jelly said: “I could not believe what I was reading, it just made me very angry. I could not even carry on and debate the issue with councillor Leach, because there is no arguing with someone who sees the world the way he does.”

Legal challenge planned

The Epsom Access Group has threatened to legally challenge council proposals for blue badge holders parking charges.

According to the chairman of the group, Geoff Jelly, Epsom and Ewell Council has failed to meet its disability equality duty under the DDA 2006, because it did not perform a Equality Impact Assessment of the proposed changes before consultation.

He said, in a letter to the chief executive of the council Frances Rutter, formal consultation with the group did not happen until two working days before the environment committee meeting, and disabled people were involved in developing the proposal from the start.