By Iain Ramage
All council-owned car parks in the Highlands could soon implement charges, in a bid to boost income.
Only 20 of the 230 car parks currently do so.
Councillors will be asked at a special meeting on Thursday to roll out fees across the region.
The idea has fuelled an angry debate in the council chamber and Highland communities over the past two years.
Council leaders say there is huge potential for new investment in roads and services from the anticipated additional revenue.
Speaking in advance of Thursday’s debate, Allan Henderson, chairman of the council’s environment, development and infrastructure committee, said: “My message to members is quite clear – you’re here as an elected member but you also have a corporate responsibility and if there’s one thing we need to do, it’s to generate income.
“In this case, we’re giving you an opportunity to generate income that could be spent for the betterment of your own area as well, so think on it that way.
“The council manages infrastructure comprising some 4000 miles of roads, 100 harbours, 1400 bridges and over 200 schools.
“Each year, there’s a reducing pot of money to invest in local infrastructure and services, and to find solutions for tourist congestion and traffic management across the region.”
Councillor Henderson said consultation with communities and staff had identified a number of areas needing urgent investment, not least to protect services and jobs.
The council’s deputy leader Alasdair Christie added: “Every area has unique local priorities, whether this is gully cleaning, pot hole repairs, resurfacing or just managing traffic and tourism pressures.
“Changing our approach to charging for off-street car parking can provide a way to support some of the additional investment required to address these problems.
“This new approach can also enable real local decision-making and local choices to be made about improvements which we simply cannot afford from our current budget which has to be spread across a huge geographical area.”
The council’s area committees have been promised the final say on how the potential extra revenue would be broken down in terms of prioritising investment.
Council leaders argue that the big gain would be additional revenue for much needed road improvements.
Councillors representing communities with particular fragile local economies have consistently opposed the introduction of parking charges warning that it would decimate what remains of their retail sector.
The independent-led administration claims the policy would “raise more income to protect services and jobs,” and “enable local choices on spend”.
Highland Council car parks raised income of almost £1.7m in 2018-19.
After deducting running costs, it had £989,000 at its disposal to invest in services.
It would be for area committees to decide the tariff for parking, should the policy be agreed on Thursday.