COUNCIL chiefs pleaded poverty as they rubberstamped plans to charge disabled drivers to visit country parks.

Ruling Tories on Hampshire County Council said making Blue Badge holders pay to park at sites across Hampshire that used to be free were necessary to balance the budget.

The plans – which could raise £50,000 per year – were branded “cruel and heartless” by opposition Lib Dems on the county authority.

They have also come under fire from disabilities groups.

Cabinet member for culture and recreation, Councillor Margaret Snaith-Tempia, who is paid allowances of £29,000 a year, passed the decision yesterday.

She had heard senior officers warn that the county’s library service is overspending by £200,000 and the Milestones Museum in Basingstoke is £50,000 over budget.

To claw back some cash, the council is proposing to charge for blue badge spaces at country parks from February 2011 onwards, as revealed in yesterday’s Daily Echo, below.

Head of countryside, Andy Smith, said the authority had taken steps to make their sites more accessible for d i s a b l e d users.

He said they would consult with park visitors before deciding what the exact charges should be.

For example, where drivers currently pay a fixed all-day fee, there could be cheaper short-term tickets offered, he said.

Cllr Snaith-Tempia said: “I know there will be people who are cross about it but I think we have explained to everyone that this position is something we have to address.”

She added that a consultation should throw up any difficulties that may arise but the decision could not be delayed.

“We’re not in a position financially to be held up. We need to move on with this,” she said.

The parks involved are Manor Farm Country Park in Bursledon, Royal Victoria Country Park at Netley, Lepe Country Park in the New Forest and Queen Elizabeth Country Park near Waterlooville.