THE aggressive car parking regime at Hinchingbrooke Hospital is on its way out, new managers Circle promised this week, as part of a series of changes to make the place more welcoming.

The company's property director, Mark Cammies, who has lived within a stone's throw of the hospital for many years, is determined to reduce patients' stress levels by taking the hassle out of parking and getting to where they need to be.

Circle's first action was to give notice to the car park operators, County Parking, that their contract and their £40 fines regime were coming to an end.

"That doesn't mean we won't still deal firmly with people who park in ambulance bays or disabled space or those who 'fly-park'," he told The Hunts Post. "But patients should not have the stress of worrying about whether they'll be fined for overstaying in the car park."

In fact, arrangements have been in place for years to prevent patients being penalised for late-running clinics, "but some clinics have been better than others at letting patients know," Mr Cammies said. "That's a short-term management issue that's easily resolved."

Circle has been at pains not to point the finger at County Parking. "The problem has not been the contractor, but the contract."

The new managers want patients and Huntingdonshire residents to suggest how best to improve the parking arrangements to remove the worry of not being able to find a space or the coins to pay for it, and then being on the wrong part of the site for where they need to be. Ultimately, the plan is to move to a pay-on-exit system, possibly in association with additional spaces.

"Pay-on-entry and pay-and-display are not suited to a hospital. They can be very stressful," Mr Cammies said.

The first thing visitors will notice is the removal of signage that relates to a parking regime that was abandoned eight years ago - and soon the artificial mound that hides the main entrance will go.

"We are tackling the signage so that as you navigate into the estate there's no longer confusion between the main entrance, the treatment centre and A&E."

Circle knows it needs to do something to improve reception areas in both the main hospital and the treatment centre to make them more welcoming and help patients easily find the clinics where they have appointments.

Consultation with staff and patients on initial thoughts for the hospital entrance will start in a few weeks' time. "It won't be a top-down exercise, though we have to accept that people's ideas about design can be personal.

"It's like coming into a rabbit warren at the moment. We need to open up the space to assist with navigation from the heart of the hospital."

That could include no longer having the police interview room as the first thing patients and visitors encounter as they step inside the revolving doors. And access to clinics in the treatment centre also needs improving, he added.

Once the initial fairer parking regime is established in the next couple of months, Circle plans to move on to a complete review of staff and patient parking across the Hinchingbrooke estate - the firm knows that there are areas, such as outside the Woodlands Centre, where there are too many staff spaces and not enough for patients.

Staff will continue to have concessionary rates, but their access may soon be by automatic number-plate recognition technology.

With most people in and out of appointments within two hours, the hospital may move to a single parking charge, maybe quite similar to the present rate, though there may need to be an over-eight-hours rate to deter rail commuters.

THE first week of Circle's 10-year management franchise for the hospital has been an encouraging start, said property director Mark Cammies.

"I think it's gone really, particularly from the enthusiasm of staff. We have the opportunity to do a lot of things across the hospital from the patient point of view.

"Applying the capital spend in the right way for patients is what we need to focus on. And people are already contributing. The vast majority are willing to give it a real shot. They have been as frustrated as we that they have not been allowed to do things."

Mr Cammies had emerged from a meeting with porters to talk to The Hunts Post.

"They identified improvements they thought should be made. We discussed what was standing in the way of that. Now they will remove those obstructions.

"It has been very encouraging, but patients have got to see changes to know that we're having an impact."