MORE than 10,000 disabled drivers could be forced to pay to park at beauty spots in the New Forest for the first time.
Blue Badge holders who live in the Forest and visitors will have to buy a ticket to use council-owned car parks under plans being drawn up by town hall bosses.
Alternatively they could purchase an annual parking clock, which could net the district council more than £1m.
Groups representing disabled drivers have hit out at the proposals, saying they amount to discrimination.
Helen Dolphin, of Disabled Motoring UK, said: “It takes the majority of disabled motorists longer to do their shopping than able-bodied drivers, which means they’ll end up paying more than other people.
“Some disabled motorists find it difficult to use payment machines.
“There’s also the possibility they will park in the street instead, which is far more dangerous for the disabled.”
The New Forest East branch of Age Concern also criticised the scheme.
Chief executive Jean Adams said: “A lot of older people are on very tight budgets and really rely on free parking to maintain their independence. If they have to pay to park it could impact on their quality of life.”
The council says the free parking concession is costing it tens of thousands of pounds a year in lost income.
There are about 10,200 disabled drivers in the district.
In Lymington it costs between 80p and £4 to park. Alternatively residents can buy an annual parking clock for £100 or £20, depending on whether they want to use long or short-stay spaces.
The council will net more than £1m if all 10,200 blue badge holders decide to buy one of the £100 clocks.
A council spokesman said: “The authority believes that, where reasonable, all motorists should pay to park as the income helps maintain the car parks and provides other services.
“It also feels that charging Blue Badge holders to park may reduce the incentive for badges to be used fraudulently.”
A report to the environment overview and scrutiny panel said the permits aim to help disabled people park near the places they wanted to visit and were not intended to benefit them financially.
But Councillor David Harrison, a former leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition group, described the proposals as a tax on the disabled. He vowed that the Lib Dems would re-introduce free parking for all Forest residents if they gained control of the council at the next local elections in 2015.
The authority has launched a public consultation exercise that runs until September 14.
The council’s proposals do not affect woodland car parks owned by the Forestry Commission, all of which are free.