NEWS FOCUS: The shortage of parking spaces at hospitals may not be the most controversial of subjects but it is an issue that arouses resentment and anger, according to Rebecca Evans and Laura Donnelly

'In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes. ' Perhaps if Benjamin Franklin had been a manager, doctor, nurse or - perish the thought - a relative of a poorly patient at an NHS London hospital, he might have added one more item to his list.

An impromptu survey of the state of hospital parking spaces reveals one thing: those who regularly drive to the capital's hospitals are certain to have encountered the nightmare of trying to find a reasonably priced parking space.

Parking does not sound like the most controversial of subjects.

Indeed, hospitals that HSJ contacted to answer questions on the price and availability of spaces were baffled by the approach.

None hinted at the seething resentment and anger surrounding the subject.

Off the record, it was an entirely different story. HSJ sources with a long history in the service were particularly enraged over the failure of central government, local councils and NHS bodies to invest in parking or give it some priority.

As one said: 'Well of course It is a boring subject. That is why it gets ignored and never gets sorted. '

The problem is very straightforward: a shortage of space - particularly, but not only - in urban areas. This results in very limited numbers of parking spaces that need to be allotted somehow to those judged most in need. Then there is the tricky balance between ensuring staff and visitors can afford the places that are available without making them a bargain for commuters.

One source suggests that there is something 'unsettling' about an 'obsession' in the British psyche with parking spaces.

'It is the first thing that comes up at any public meeting. Nobody cares about clinical standards, waiting lists, nobody cares about anything really - except parking. '

Another source, also in London, adds: 'It will always be a bete noire.

If a consultant can't get a space for his Jag, he can get pretty upset about it. '

Once the floodgates open, there are urban myths aplenty - of managers and consultants going nose to nose over their manoeuvring rights, of patrol guards retiring to their portable cabins in fear, and of medical secretaries insisting they are priority staff.

Perhaps it is a primeval territorial urge. Either way, the figures from London's hospitals show that when it comes to parking, you can't please all of the people all of the time.

Take Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital trust. It has almost 7,000 employees. It also has 1,300 beds, not to mention outpatient services. And how many parking spaces does it have? 449 for staff and 223 for visitors. The staff spaces cost between£325 and£550, which is in line with London hospital rates.

What is more, centrally sited hospitals such as Guy's have extra problems keeping out tourists and commuters. Guy's charges visitors between£2. 10 and£2. 30 an hour.

'The trust has to keep its prices equivalent to those charged commercially in the area to avoid being swamped with tourists and other members of the public. This has been a particular issue at St Thomas' because of its proximity to the London Eye. '

In London, most staff who get a space pay about£30 or£40 a month. The rate rises for staff on higher salaries.

Visitors always pay more.

Doctors speaking to HSJ on the subject were angered by cases where families who had just learned of a bereavement got back to their car to find it had been clamped. 'That is just not human, ' said one.

Fifteen years ago, Chase Farm Hospital built a multistorey car park with 510 spaces. Located in Enfield, in the London region but technically in Middlesex, it is free for staff and just£1. 20 a day for visitors.

Still, its location means it is unlikely to suffer from the kind of problems that are said to dog the Royal Free Hospital, near fashionable Hampstead. 'Half of the spaces are taken by people nipping into French Connection, ' says one former London trust manager.

The Royal Free Hampstead trust charges visitors£3 an hour. A spokesperson insists that the trust does not have 'much of a problem'with shoppers and commuters, but signs in the car park do warn that non-hospital users will be clamped.

South London and Maudsley trust takes a radical approach.

At the cost of£200,000 a year, it runs a taxi service to get patients to their mental health appointments.

The scheme has a long history.

Administrator Maureen Baker says: 'It is to ensure patients get to appointments and day care. We have cut back on some of it because it was getting ridiculous - trips to the hairdresser and bingo. '

The NHS will be top of the election agenda for the next two weeks, but is there space to make parking a political issue?

Staff are pessimistic about any future solution to the unglamorous problem of parking.

'What can you do, apart from demolishing an entire residential area and concreting it over for a multistorey car park? You have to work with what you have. I can't imagine a day when you could put a bid into region for a bloody car park, ' says one.

Few mention the alternative:

hundreds of nurses, doctors and managers rolling up their trouser legs and getting on their bikes. As red, blue and yellow manifestos vie for attention, is it time for the NHS to take a green approach?