CHILDREN could be locked out of almost 200 parks if Highland Council’s latest budget cuts go ahead.
The local authority has suggested closing two thirds of play facilities in the region, leaving fewer than 100 in an area the size of Belgium.
Senior councillors have said they can no longer afford to maintain old equipment and that some parks are unsafe so will need to be closed unless communities can take responsibility for them.
The proposal will see up to 185 scrapped – leaving just 95 – to save £212,000 of the £26 million budget black hole.
It is just one in a series of swingeing cuts affecting children, including plans to axe lollipop ladies, pupil support assistants, additional support needs teachers and 40 secondary school teachers.
An expert in the benefits of outdoor play has called for parents to launch a campaign against the plans, saying it is the only way to protect parks.
Marguerite Hunter Blair, chief executive of Play Scotland, said: "I’m absolutely stunned at this because Highland Council has a reputation for being very pro-active and progressive in relation to encouraging outdoor play.
"Children are already over-weight from lack of exercise and are not getting enough vitamin D so this is going to make matters even worse.
"Every £1 spent on early years saves £8 further down the line and that extends to outdoor play so this is a very short-sighted quick fix that will only cause more problems in the future.
"If people stay quiet this will be an easy cut for the council. Parents need to fight to keep parks and make themselves heard and Play Scotland will support them in any way we can."
Budget leader Alister Mackinnon has pledged to consider "rationalising" the facilities so that only parks in a poor condition which have another one nearby will be closed and suggested community associations take ownership of any they did not want to lose.
"They are only proposals at this stage but we are looking at ways to rationalise the facilities and we’re keen to see if communities can take them," he said.
"There are some areas which have two parks very close together and one is in very poor condition and hardly used, those are the ones we are looking at.
"Some community groups have been really enthusiastic whereas in other areas there is no interest at all, but we will work with anyone who is interested."
Many of the newer parks are in recently developed housing estates meaning the parks in older, more deprived areas could be at greater risk.
But Councillor Mackinnon has pledged to make sure there is no inequality and blamed spates of vandalism for the poor condition of many parks.
"I’m well aware of the risks this could pose and I know we have to keep a park in every area so if any are to be closed, it will be down to the fact they are hardly used.
"I admit there are a lot of parks in poor condition all over the Highlands but a big problem is the money we have to spend repairing vandalised equipment. It’s very expensive to replace or repair things and we don’t have the money anymore."
Allan Henderson, chairman of the council’s environment, development and infrastructure committee, said closing the old parks would improve health and safety.
"Some of the parks have been very poorly maintained over the years so there is a safety aspect to this as well as a budget saving," he said.
"I refute the idea that deprived areas will lose out. All of the parks are open to everyone, not only to the children who live closest."
All proposed cuts will be agreed at the budget meeting on February 15.