Council officers have been grilled over BRACKNELL council’s approach to dishing out Blue Badges for those with hidden disabilities.

Blue Badges are given to people with disabilities to allow them to park in disabled bays. In August 2019, Blue Badges were expanded to those with hidden disabilities.

The Blue Badge policy is currently under review by Bracknell Forest Council, after figures revealed that the borough has one of the biggest disparities between ‘hidden’ and physical disability Blue Badge approval rates in the UK.

READ MORE: Blue Badge disparity: Bracknell Forest has one of UK's highest rates

During a meeting of the council’s Wellbeing and Finance Overview and Scrutiny Panel, officers were grilled over what changes had been made and the status of its review.

The review is taking place after a number of parents and carers of people with hidden disabilities had their applications for Blue Badges rejected.

Ollie Sirrell, former Local Democracy Reporter for Bracknell Forest, was called as a witness, following his extensive contact with applicants for people with hidden disabilities who failed to acquire badges.

Mr Sirrell revealed that out of 144 Blue Badge applications for those with hidden disabilities in Bracknell Forest between August 2019 and August 2020, only 50 were granted. 69 applications were refused, with the remaining 25 requests not completed or not decided. 

Out of 109 UK councils that gave figures, Bracknell Forest had the 16th biggest disparity between Blue Badges approved for physical disabilities and those approved for ‘hidden’ disabilities.

Explaining the frustration failed applicants had faced, Mr Sirrell said: “Through phone and email conversations, there was a lot of dissatisfaction from those families about how the council processed those requests and the level of communication.

“One of their biggest gripes is that there was not much explanation as to why their applications were refused.

“The typical response they had received from rejection letters was that they had not provided enough evidence. And I think, the families, in their conversations with me have said: we don’t agree with that. We’ve presented plenty of evidence from doctors, doctor’s letters etc.a

“A lack of sufficient communication is perhaps their biggest gripe. Perhaps because the guidelines were new… some of the families thought they weren’t getting a sufficient answer as to why their child didn’t qualify for the Blue Badge.”

During his reporting on the issue, Mr Sirrell spoke to the Mullins family from Martin's Heron, who had their application for a Blue Badge for their son Matthew last year.

He also spoke to a family from Binfield who had their Blue Badge application refused as well.

READ MORE: Family refused blue badge parking for autistic son

The panel summoned Melanie O’Rourke, the council’s Assistant Director for Adult Social Care, and Gavin Austin, the council’s Assistant Community Services Manager for Occupational Therapy to the meeting.

Assistant director O’Rourke explained that the council has already made changes in an effort to make the process of applying for a Blue Badge more transparent.

These changes allow applicants to appeal a refused application, and made separate forms for those with physical disabilities and those with ‘non-visible conditions’, which can range from Multiple Sclerosis and chronic fatigue to brain injuries and Autism.

Assistant director O’Rourke was grilled by Cllr Mary Temperton (LAB) over the detail the council gives in its Blue Badge refusal letters.

She asked: “Do [the applicants] get information in depth of why they have been refused, and also information in depth of if they are to make an appeal, what new and extra evidence was missing in the first place which might be beneficial on appeal?”

Assistant Director Melanie O’Rourke replied: “We’ve made things much more clear within the refusal letter, within that it should give an indication to the individual that these are the things we would expect, because these are the things omitted from the application.”

Bracknell News:

Cllr Isabell Mattick (CON), vice-chairwoman of the panel, asked how many people managed to obtain Blue Badges through the appeal. However, Assistant Director O’Rourke was unable to recall the figure during the meeting.

Cllr Mattick said: “People with hidden disabilities require consistency… It’s essential for some of us, particularly with autism etc – they have to know where they are and where going. They have to have that comfort.”

“If they have to park elsewhere because they no longer have a Blue Badge, they are very unfamiliar and it does cause problems… We can’t afford to upset people, because when do they come back and trust us? That’s vitally important.”

READ MORE: "You spoke and we have listened" - Wokingham council improves disabled blue badge system following complaints

However, the issue of people lodging fraudulent applications was raised by Cllr Michael Brossard (CON). Answering what happens when fraudulent applications are made, Mr Austin said: “We do get the odd phishing one online…they fill in all the boxes… then we ask them to supply evidence and we don’t hear from then again…That just wouldn’t work without evidence.”

It is then the responsibility of the council’s traffic and parking department to recover any Blue Badges that have been dispatched in error.

You can follow the meeting as it unfolded in this Twitter thread below:

The meeting was held so that councillors could scrutinise the council’s review of the Blue Badge application process. The Wellbeing and Finance Overview and Scrutiny Panel must submit its findings and recommendations, if any, by Wednesday, May 12.

The council’s new model for processing Blue Badge applications for people with hidden disabilities will be implemented on Wednesday, September 1.