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Shopmobility users disappointed as Cambridge City Council refuses to withdraw charges

Cambridge City Council has introduced Shopmobility charges. Picture Keith Heppell
Cambridge City Council has introduced Shopmobility charges. Picture Keith Heppell

Campaigners say service is a lifeline for disabled people - but council says it has to impose fees to keep it going

Campaigners fear some of the most vulnerable disabled people in Cambridge “could end up being left behind” after the city council refused to cut charges for motorised vehicle users.

There was disappointment on Thursday night (April 19) as Cambridge City Council voted down a motion to withdraw recently implemented charges to the city’s Shopmobility scheme, which allows disabled people to borrow a motorised scooter, or a wheelchair - manual or electric- from the Grafton East or Grand Arcade car parks to get around the shops.

The previously free service is now “among the most expensive in the country”, causing a backlash, with many saying an unfair impact is falling on the shoulders of some of the most vulnerable people in Cambridge.

The charges came into effect on April 1. Shopmobility users now pay a £40 annual subscription, plus £5 each time they use the service. The council heard that the charges would put people off visiting the city, and that there was a risk some of the most vulnerable people in Cambridge would end up bearing the brunt of the charges.

It was argued, however, that the city council needed to keep the service running, and that they could no longer do that for free.

Sue Simms, who uses the Shopmobility scheme, said the decision to introduce charges for the scheme was a “grave error”. She said it is a lifeline for people who can’t get out and about and said the decision to charge is “disrespectful” and prohibitive.

“We are talking about a lifeline for disabled people,” she continued.

“People rely on it who cannot get out and about. I was very angry about the way the decision was made. It looks like Cambridge has gone, overnight, from one of the most inclusive places for disabled people to one of the most difficult ones. Is this somewhere we want to be?”

Jean White, who formerly worked for the council on the Shopmobility scheme, said she was “appalled” by the charges, claiming people relied on the scheme, and said Cambridge was now one of the most expensive places to use Shopmobility scooters in the UK.

But Cllr Kevin Blencowe said the decision to charge was made reluctantly and that the city council had had to take on a shortfall in funding that was not sustainable.

“We don’t welcome this with open arms,” he explained.

“We were asked to pick up a shortfall in funding two years ago.”

Cllr Blencowe said that, since funding had been withdrawn by the county council, the city council had stepped up to meet the demand. He said the city council wanted to keep the service going, but would not be able to keep it going for free any longer.

Calling for shopmobility charges to be withdrawn, Cllr Tim Bick threw the slogan “one Cambridge fair for all” back at opposite benches, saying it now “sticks in the craw”. He said he hoped the decision to replace free service with one of the most expensive in the country was a mistake.

“The users of the service are justifiably angry at what has been done,” he said.

“You can start afresh and wipe the slate clean tonight.”

Cllr Lucy Nethsingha said it is “absolutely clear” disabled people are less likely to be in full-time work, and are more likely to be socially isolated. She slammed budget cuts at Cambridgeshire County Council and said she was disappointed that free services were being withdrawn by city council.

But Cllr Gerri Bird argued that there is “no way” any disabled person would be discriminated against in Cambridge. She said she had been involved in the process to implement the charges and that, while she had had initial concerns about the idea, she was now sure the measures were fair.

“The city council does not want to discriminate against anybody,” she said.

“Every disabled person has a right to get out and about in the city and go shopping and everything. There is no way any person in the city of Cambridge will be discriminated against in any way.

Cllr Rod Cantrill said he was “flabbergasted” that “political decisions” were being made – and said one of the most vulnerable groups in the city risked being left out

The motion was rejected with 13 voting in favour, 24 opposing it, and three abstaining. The charges will remain in place.

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