FREE short-term parking could be introduced in Inverness city centre as part of a year-long pilot project.
After months of pressure from Inverness Business Improvement District (Bid) and the Courier, via our Park the Charges campaign, Highland Council’s city of Inverness area committee will debate and vote on the idea at a meeting on Thursday.
If approved, the pilot would allow drivers to park for up to 15 minutes in on-street pay and display spaces without charge through the use of a free ticket.
It would not apply to car parks as officers say these are too far from shops for people to do what they need in 15 minutes.
Council officers suggest ticket machines could be reprogrammed for £1700 so they could issue the free parking tickets during the pilot period.
If the scheme is adopted permanently, the Highland capital will be following in the footsteps of Perth, where a similar one-year trial was recently made permanent.
Council officers set out a number of practical problems identified in Perth, including abuse of the system by drivers who keep returning to their cars and installing more free tickets.
To combat this, officers said current ticket machines might have to be replaced with more modern ones which would require drivers to input their registration numbers to secure a free ticket. This would cost £85,000.
Bid manager Mike Smith (pictured) said he was hopeful that any issues could be ironed out during the pilot and as Perth had now adopted the scheme permanently, the benefits more likely outweighed the difficulties.
"Everyone recognises that parking is a key issue for the city centre and we need to start looking at it not simply as a traffic issue but as part of the whole marketing mix for the area," he said.
"As a board, Bid is keen for anything that increases footfall in the city centre and therefore the potential custom for local businesses.
"We are delighted that Highland Council officers are taking this on and recommending approval for a pilot scheme.
"We are hopeful the committee will be supportive of this policy as making a very important statement in support of the city centre."
Inverness MP Drew Hendry previously said the experiment "should be given a try" while independent Inverness Central councillor Janet Campbell said she could see free parking "adding to the footfall, resultant retail spend and overall business viability".
Earlier in the campaign, Inverness Central ward member Richard Laird had questions about how any scheme would work in practice but called for the council to commit to a feasibility study and city Provost Helen Carmichael also suggested a trial was worth pursuing.
"It would let people pull in, pick up whatever they need and move on," she said. "If it doesn’t work, we don’t have to continue with it."
Yesterday, Inverness Central councillor Bet McAllister said she still had concerns about whether 15 minutes was practical or if a 30-minute period would be more useful, especially for the elderly or those with mobility difficulties.
She added: "I am very much in favour of any idea that has the potential to get more people into the city centre and that supports our local retailers."
Also set to be debated by councillors at Thursday’s meeting is an increase in the number of short-stay pay and display spaces in the city centre.
Officers are recommending the creation of six new spaces in Millburn Road close to Lochgorm; four bays in Strothers Lane and three bays in Church Street, all of which would have an impact on the space available for loading.
They also recommend extending car parking into four bays in Castle Street, which would impact on motorcycle provision there.
Officers also say they will "continue to monitor" current parking restrictions after councillors asked for the feasibility of more free Sunday parking to be investigated.
Their report states that on-street parking is already free on Sundays but points out this does not benefit visitors very much because turnover of spaces is very low.
The removal of off-street parking charges for a Sunday, such as at the Rose Street multi-storey car park, would increase budget pressures of between £125,000 and £200,000 per year, the report claims.