CONTROVERSIAL parking charges proposals have drawn their first political blood as a veteran councillor resigned from Highland Council’s Independent-led administration.
With another councillor suggesting that "four or five others" could follow suit, Caithness Independent member Donnie Mackay quit over proposals to roll out charges to currently free council car parking sites.
The same issue has exercised councillors in Nairn as well as on the Black Isle where charges are expected to be introduced at the popular Chanonry Point site.
Members worry about the impact on business, particularly in terms of putting off shoppers and tourists from visiting.
Mr Mackay (74) is expected to join the council’s Conservative group as his political swansong before stepping down at the next election. He was a party member in his youth but always served as an Independent.
Explaining his reasons for the sudden move, he also cited the potential impact of public toilet closures, another way the council is aiming to balance its books.
Mr Mackay said: "The charges will rip the heart out of town centres while big supermarkets laugh all the way to the bank, with free parking.
"We’re trying to attract tourists but public toilets are closing. We’re going backwards. A lot of colleagues feel the same way, but I’m not naming names."
Council leader Margaret Davidson said she was sorry to see Mr Mackay leave her group.
"I’ve told him so and I’ve wished him well," she said.
In contrast Conservative group leader Andrew Jarvie was "delighted" by Mr Mackay’s decision.
However, defending the parking proposal which is scheduled to be ratified at the end of this month, Liberal Democrat group leader Alasdair Christie reminded Mr Mackay that the Tories had backed the idea.
He added: "If we can’t afford key infrastructure services, whether it’s education, social workers, child protection, filling potholes or caring for the elderly, people have to understand that we have to do things that wouldn’t necessarily have been done in the past. Raising revenue in car parks is one of them."
Mr Jarvie in turn insisted that, since the budget debate, it had emerged that potential car park income would be substantially less than first projected because some sites were subsequently omitted from calculations because they are community owned. On that basis, he said, his group no longer backed the proposal.
Estimates suggest the new charges would reap £210,000 in the first year, though the regime would cost £142,000 to implement.
Councillor Margaret Paterson has threatened to quit if charges are introduced in her own Dingwall ward and Nairn Provost Laurie Fraser said he believes "four or five" other independent colleagues could join the revolt.
Fellow ward councillor Liz MacDonald, an SNP member also opposed to the charges, said: "The administration should have consulted first."
Council convener Bill Lobban said: "The redesign board is working through the proposal.
"People should let it do its work and then decide whether they like the end result.
"What is set in stone is that areas will have to raise an amount of money and, if not [through parking], we’ll need to raise it somewhere else."