NHS HOSPITALS in Southampton and Hampshire collected almost £5million in car parking fees last year, new figures have revealed.

That includes charging patients, visitors and staff who used hospital car parks in the city and the wider Hampshire area throughout 2016/17.

University Hospital Southampton, the trust which operates Southampton General Hospital and Princess Anne Hospital, raked in the majority of the money.

The trust, which charges £2 for up to an hour and £5.20 for up to four hours, pulled in £3,730,000 in parking charges in 2016/17 – slightly higher than the year before.

Meanwhile, Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (HHFT), which operates hospitals in Winchester, Basingstoke and Andover, collected more than £1,250,000 over the same period.

It comes as figures, from the Press Association, revealed NHS hospitals across England raked in more than £174 million in parking fees in 2016/17 – up six per cent on the year before.

Some 120 NHS trusts across England were asked to give figures on parking charges and fines under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, of which 111 responded.

The Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust, in the West Midlands, came out top when it came to parking income, making £4,865,000 across the year.

Figures show the most expensive trust in the country for a one-hour stay is the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford, where patients pay £4 if they need to stay for an hour.

Alongside the figures, a total of 40 trusts provided data on parking fines, showing they made £947,568 in 2016/17 from fining patients, visitors and staff on hospital grounds.

This was up 32 per cent up on the £716,385 taken by the trusts the year before.

The investigation found that half (56) of NHS trusts also charge disabled people for parking in some or all of their disabled spaces.

University Hospital Southampton were one of the trusts that did charge disabled people for parking, while HHFT said they did not.

The figures have branded a strong reaction from critics, with some branding the charges a "tax on sickness"

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb said: "The vast sums of money that hospitals are making from parking charges reveal the hidden cost of healthcare faced by many patients and their families.

"Hospital car park charges amount to a tax on sickness, with people who are chronically ill or disabled bearing the brunt.

"All hospitals should be following the national guidelines to make sure that patients, relatives, and NHS staff are not unfairly penalised."

Shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, who promised to scrap parking charges under a Labour government, added: "Hospital parking charges are an entirely unfair and unnecessary burden, which disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people using our health service."

Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, said the current state of NHS finances meant it was sometimes hard to blame hospitals for trying to find money.

But she said that did not make the current situation acceptable.

She added: "For patients, parking charges amount to an extra charge for being ill.

"The increase in parking fines is also worrying.

"Hospital appointments are often delayed or last longer than expected, so even if you pay for parking you could end up being fined if your ticket runs out."

A Department of Health spokesman said that patients should not have to deal with the "added stress" of unfair parking charges.

But the spokesperson said that it was down to local NHS organisations to set the methods used to charge.

A spokesman for University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust said: "This figure reflects the size of our trust and demonstrates the large and increasing number of staff, patients and visitors who are using our car parks and are travelling further to work or to be treated here rather than the cost of a ticket, which is comparable with similar hospital trusts.

"We offer a wide range of concessions for patients, particularly those receiving long-term treatment, as well as the option of purchasing seven, 14 or 30-day tickets which bring charges down considerably.

"There are no charges at Countess Mountbatten House where our palliative service for cancer patients is provided."

The spokesperson added that any revenue not spent on upkeep, security or improvements to the trust's car parks is invested into frontline services.

The Echo has contacted HHFT for comment.

However, on the trust's website it says it gives free parking for the first 30 minutes, as well as free parking to certain visitors, including chemotherapy patients and those visiting patients in intensive care.