HIKES in parking charges across the New Forest will be the “final nail in the coffin” for Ringwood and Fordingbridge’s high streets, councillors have warned.

New Forest District Council is proposing to raise charges by as much as 66 per cent across the region after a cut in its government grant.

The two-year proposals to generate almost £350,000 were revealed in a report to the authority’s cabinet, which was set to debate the scheme on Wednesday.

At the moment motorists can make a one-off payment to use either short-stay or long-stay car parks in the Forest without buying a ticket.

But the cost of short-stay clocks is set to rise from £12 a year to £20 and long-stay from £86 to £100.

Fordingbridge Mayor Malcolm Connolly described the move as “scurrilous”.

He said: “This is a final nail in the coffin for Fordingbridge High Street. The district council should consider the poor state of the high street – its footfall and turnover are down and this is a final nail in the coffin.

“In this economic downturn with the high street finding things very difficult these rises are scurrilous. January, February and March will be extremely difficult for business people in our town.

“The town council is trying to do everything it can to attract people into the town, but when we are faced with proposals like this, it seems we are fighting a losing battle.”

Cllr Connolly added: “People will try to avoid paying for car parking and so will find empty side streets or park along the already congested high street.”

Ringwood town councillor Jacqueline Terry said: “The town council learned about this last week and I am disgusted that there has not been any time for a debate.

“What I fail to understand is why we cannot have a general rise at 20 per cent across the board rather than a 66 per cent hike in the clocks. All this will do is drive shoppers into the arms of out-of-town supermarkets or places like Castlepoint and Bournemouth.

“There are people out there right now who are counting every penny they have and this rise, combined with all the other prices increases such as business rates, is just too much.

“As usual it is the rate-payer that bears the brunt of it. The traders are bound to suffer, for them this is another nail in the coffin.”

And chairman of the New Forest Business Partnership Rob Dewing said the rise could discourage people from driving to visit independent shops and use supermarkets with free parking instead.

He said: “Most parking clocks are sold to New Forest residents and this backdoor increase in their cost of living is not good news.”

A report to the cabinet says the cost of the clocks was last increased in January 2010.

It states: “A revaluation of the rateable value of the car parks in 2010 has resulted in additional national non domestic rates costs of £150,000 in 2011/12. This will increase by a further £150,000 in subsequent years (£90,000 of which will fall into 2012/13) as transitional rate relief is withdrawn.

“To date the increase in VAT has not been reflected in the cost of using car parks. This has contributed to the current prediction that there will be a £100,000 shortfall in income compared with the original 2011/12 budget.

“The district council’s government grant has been cut by £2.7million over two years. To absorb this, the council is reviewing all services and has little choice but to cut spending and increase the income it raises itself.”