THE Mayor of Ballymoney, Cllr Bill Kennedy, says it is "scandalous" that visitors to the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine will have to pay to park.

The Ulster Unionist councillor says the move will put financial pressure on people particularly at times of stress in their lives.

Cllr Kennedy told the Times: "If you have a loved one in the hospital for a lengthy period and you are visiting them every day the amount to use the car park will soon add up and at a time when you are worried about the person's health the last thing you need is the added strain of having to worry about paying a parking bill which over a period of weeks could amount to quite a total."

He added: "It is scandalous really."

The Mayor said the the precedent for paying in hospital car parks was already set at places like the Royal Victoria in Belfast.

But he added: "It is the patient and their family and dependents who are getting it hard enough at a time of health worries and perhaps very little money coming in and they they are expected to pay.

"When you add these costs to the price of petrol and diesel to travel from Ballymoney Borough to Coleraine over a period of time it could hit you in the pocket."

And Mayor Kennedy said if the hospital is bringing in the parking fees to stop non-hospital users using the carpark he said some other mechanism should be used to stop that happening rather than penalise patients and their families.

"Why should the genuine visitors be punished?" asked the councillor.

Hospital chiefs revealed this week that pay-to-park at the Causeway Hospital will come in later this year.

Work will begin this month on the traffic management scheme at Causeway Hospital. New arrangements will help manage the flow of traffic and control parking at the hospital. When complete, visitors to the site will have to pay to use the hospital car park.

The Northern Trust launched the project, along with a major scheme at Antrim Area Hospital, as part of its modernisation and reform programme in 2008.

Contractors, F P McCann will start work on Monday January 31. The new system should be completed and operational by summer 2011.

A Trust spokesman apologised for any inconvenience works will cause to hospital patients and visitors and added that contractors would make every effort to ensure disruption is kept to a minimum. Temporary arrangements will be clearly signposted.

He went on to say: "The traffic at our hospital sites has increased significantly in recent years and the work when complete will considerably improve traffic flow. We plan to create around 60 new spaces at Causeway Hospital. There will also be additional spaces at Antrim and some maintenance work on the main car park.

"Parking facilities at both our major hospitals have been abused in the past. We know of cases of hospital car parks being used by people with business elsewhere, people going shopping and, on one occasion, a car left parked while the vehicle owner went on holiday for two weeks.

"We expect the introduction of paid parking to reduce this kind of unacceptable behaviour. The hourly parking rate is still under consideration by the Trust, but there will be exemptions for patients with a range of conditions and for some regular visitors."