Fort William at risk of being ‘scapegoat’ for council parking fees

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High Street retailers believe Fort William residents are being ‘singled-out’ and made to pay ‘excessive’ parking charges while other towns in the Highland Council region continue to keep their car parks free.

At a meeting of the Lochaber area committee last week, councillors decided not to reduce the annual £120 cost for a local parking permit – despite pressure from the Fort William Retail Association (FWRA) to half it – after council officers reported a £162,000 projected shortfall in the Fort William car parking budget for this year.

However, FWRA members say that not only is the £120 permit fee excessive, but it is ‘unacceptable’ that councillors in other Highland towns, such as Dingwall and Nairn, have refused to introduce parking charges.

FWRA vice-chairwoman, Maggie Wilson, feels the people of Fort William are being made shoulder the costs of parking in the Highland region unfairly. She told the Lochaber Times this week: ‘I would rather that no town had to pay for parking and the council found another way to raise the money. But if this is how it’s going to be, then everyone has to come on board.

‘We need to find a way of working together and we would like more transparency from Highland Council, but Fort William is not going to be the scapegoat for parking charges.’

In defending the need for parking charges to boost revenue, Highland Council’s principal traffic officer Shane Manning said at last week’s meeting that there is ‘no empirical evidence that it has an actual impact on footfall in town centre car parks’.

However, Ms Wilson, of the Highland Hospice shop on Fort William’s High Street, believes the charges have had an effect on shoppers’ habits: ‘The town has had extra tourism this year but the tourists have gone now and look at the High Street, it’s dead. People can get everything they need out at the retail parks out of the town, where it’s free and easy to park.

‘We need investment and footfall in the town and we won’t get that with excessive parking charges.’

At the meeting, Lochaber area committee chairman, Andrew Baxter said he is ‘adamant’ that parking charges should be rolled out across other council wards to ‘level the playing field’ with those places which are already charging parking fees, including Portree, Aviemore and Inverness.

However, councillor Niall McLean, who previously campaigned to drastically reduce parking charges, feels that the charges are still too high, especially since they have failed to deliver budget targets.

‘For us to go through the winter and get more money out of parking to then give it to the council, and that’s not being reciprocated anywhere else, I see that as being a bit foolish.

‘We agreed a strategy and it has not raised enough money – it’s not worked. It’s fine if the money stays in Fort William but we need to send a clear message that other areas need to play the game as well.’

It was reported at the meeting that work is being carried to introduce parking fees in Mallaig to ease budget pressure.

Before the meeting closed, councillors voted to remove Fort William parking charges in the run-up to Christmas for six weeks to allow shoppers to spend more time on the High Street. The proposal, put forward by Mr Baxter, will allow people to park in the centre of Fort William for two hours for free instead of the current half an hour.