Three years on from the Blue Badge scheme’s biggest overhaul in its 70-year history, Vanessa Parekh finds out how effective the changes have been and where the Scheme is set to go from here…
Originally launched in January 2012, the Blue Badge Improvement Service (BBIS) marked a complete overhaul of the parking concessions provided by UK local councils to people with restricted mobility – one that saw extensive changes to the terms and administration of the scheme, as well as the actual badges themselves.
Under the current terms of the scheme, Blue Badges are valid for a period of three years. At the end of this period, the user must prove that he or she remains eligible for the concession (ie. that they have mobility support requirements), and then apply for a renewal. Given that it’s been three and half years since the changes came in, every pre-BBIS badge will have now been replaced with the newer design.
“It wasn’t a ‘big bang’,” says Nigel Blair, Head of Product Management and Innovation at Northgate Public Services, one of the key players in the reorganisation of the scheme.“We didn’t mail out new badges to every user on the list. It’s been a gradual replacement, with continuous questioning and tweaking to ensure we meet the goal of the Improvement Service.”
That goal was to address a number of issues that had accumulated in the 30-plus years since the Blue Badge scheme’s inception. As Blair explains, “We have to react to the challenges of a growing and ageing population, which may mean more users. We wanted the application and decision-making processes to be consistent nationwide. We had to take into account things like changing weather conditions, especially with the hot summers we have had in recent years. And finally, we wanted the Blue Badge service to be fraud resistant.”
The new badge design is the most outwardly visible sign of the shake-up. While older badges could be put together on the spot by individual local authorities, the new badge is composed of four layers of heat resistant, durable PVC, each with its own fraud-resistant features. These include holograms, microtext technologies and other techniques from the field of numismatics. The badges are all factory-produced, before being mailed out to users and local authority offices across the country.
Another change ushered in by the BBIS was the introduction of an online application system, via which applicants can submit a photograph and proof of their eligibility to their local authority. Once registered, some of these details are then fed into a national database of Blue Badge users, making it easier for authorities across the country to co-ordinate with each other when tracking Blue Badge fraud.
Post-BBIS, the process of obtaining a badge has become slightly more rigorous. “It’s been taken out of the hands of the GPs, who could sometimes be careless or biased, and the application is made directly to the local authority,” says Blair. “The idea again is to create a consistent approach and prevent any sort of ‘postcode lottery.’”
According to statistics issued by the Department for Transport (DfT) earlier this year, there were 2.5 million valid Blue Badges in use throughout 2014 – a 4.5% decrease compared to the previous year. One possible factor for this cited by the DfT is that local authorities can now choose whether to refer applicants for an independent medical assessment as part of the application process.
In the view of Sue Holloway, Director of Services Strategy at Northgate, these various elements of the BBIS taken together make it difficult for someone to create a convincing forgery of a Blue Badge. “According to the enforcement agencies we’re hearing from, it’s easier for them to now identify a real Blue Badge from ones that people have tried to copy,” she says. “This is in part due to the badge itself, but the national database of Blue Badge users also plays a huge part in preventing fraud.”
There are now 206 Blue Badge issuing authorities, and over 400 authorities with powers to enforce parking across the UK. Under the old system, if an enforcement officer in Bracknell wanted to enquire about the validity of a Blue Badge issued in Stoke-on-Trent, he would have had to contact the authority in Stoke-on-Trent. Now enforcement officers can simply query the national database.
The National Fraud Authority estimated in 2013 that on average, 20% of all Blue Badges issued in England were being misused, resulting in an annual loss to councils of £46 million. There were even cases of lawyers and estate agents caught using Blue Badges belonging to a deceased or absent relative.
Nigel Blair explains that the BBIS introduced a measure designed to counter precisely that: “We now have a mortality checker that we can run against the national Blue Badge database to check for recent bereavements, and then inform the local authority so that they can deal with the issue delicately from their end.”
The introduction of the BBIS’ various anti-fraud measures seems to have had an impact. The Local Government Association announced last year that the number of people caught abusing the scheme is on the rise, with 686 successful council prosecutions in 2013 – up from 330 in 2010.
Even with the anti-fraud measures now in place, however, successful prosecutions are often reliant on enforcement officers witnessing instances of Blue Badge misuse first-hand. Otherwise, Blair notes, “We can only try to prevent misuse by ‘shaming’ people, like we do to people who litter. We need to make that sort of culture unacceptable, so that people’s friends and family and the public frown on it.
“There are talks now [about] enclosing reminders on the cards, the wallets and the enclosed clocks, regarding how and by whom the badges must be used. There are campaigns and leaflets informing customers that Blue Badge misuse could mean that somebody is put in distress.”
As well as dealing with the fraud issue, Northgate has been holding discussions with stakeholders on the workings and future of the Blue Badge scheme. “There is already an element of information sharing within the national database,” says Blair. “If somebody with the same name, NI number and date of birth was to apply for a badge, the system would flag it and notify you that there is already a user with the same details.
“The next step is to connect the database of Blue Badge users with the Department of Works and Pensions’ [DWP] database. The idea is to speed up the application process, so that applicants need not send proof of eligibility, but simply acquiesce to having the local authority check on his or her benefits with the DWP.”
The road ahead
For those unable to directly prove their eligibility via the receipt of benefits, Northgate is exploring the potential of a scoring system. Depending on how an applicant answers certain questions, they would be given a score that will allow their local authority to quickly ascertain if they need an independent medical assessment.
There are also plans to bring in photo sharing. Similar to the arrangement already in place between the DVLA and HM Passport Office, applicants would be able to use the picture on their driving licence or passport for their Blue Badge. “Sometimes getting a photograph is the hardest bit of all,” Blair concedes, “especially if you have mobility difficulties.”
Blair finishes by mentioning a further plan for the Scheme to play a role in collating the various other mobility and travel concessions that users may be able to benefit from. “If a person is entitled to a Blue Badge, they might be entitled to a concessionary bus pass or a taxi card,” he says. “We can easily signpost the relevant information to the people who need it most.”
For more information about the Blue Badge Scheme, contact your local council or the Blue Badge Initial Enquiry Support Service on 0844 463 0213 (England) 0844 463 0214 (Scotland) or 0844 463 0215 (Wales); you can also email firstname.lastname@example.org
You can apply for a Blue Badge online by visiting www.gov.uk/apply-blue-badge