Scores of playgrounds across the Highlands are suddenly being fenced-off and closed and play equipment removed.
It is understood around 50 of the 300-plus council-operated playgrounds are being taken out of use following years of underinvestment.
Deteriorating equipment and low supplies of bark used to prevent youngsters falling on hard surfaces are thought to be among the key issues.
Frustrated parents already struggling to keep children active amidst lockdown have expressed dismay at the decision.
Highland Council said it has made the move in the interests of safety, following recent inspections, but insists the closure of the playparks is a temporary measure.
It is understood that funding – ‘unspent Covid money’ – could be directed towards council wards this week, providing £2.1 million that could be used to reopen play areas.
This would, however, not be available until April.
The latest playparks that have been fenced-up are in Beauly, Kiltarlity and the Drakies area of Inverness – leaving local parents furious.
Joshua Norton from Beauly told the Press and Journal: “Swings have been removed and other areas have been made out of bounds with fencing.
“We’ve been told it is due to ‘safety concerns’ as a result of low levels of bark.
“This comes at a time where families are under increased physical and mental stresses due to the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions in place because of it.
“These closures have upset and impacted many families within these rural communities, with many people frustrated and angry.
“These parks have been vital for the children and their parents and care providers during the pandemic.
“It is utterly shameful the council have closed them.”
Roy Harrison, chairman of Beauly Community Council, wrote on social media: “There was no prior warning from Highland Council about this.
As chair of the [community] council this is the first I have heard about it.
“Had they contacted us prior we could have made arrangements to prevent this.
“There is the possibility that the community council could fund the purchase of bark.”
Councillor Maxine Morley-Smith is part of the opposition SNP group on Highland Council and has long campaigned for more playpark funding.
She said: “In the council budget three or four years ago the savings and cuts to services were very severe, as the grants from government to local authorities were hit hard.
“Highland Council had to be brutal and decided to do away with all non-statutory services – and that included playparks.
“What has happened is the council-owned playparks have been left to run down and when equipment fails it is removed and not replaced.
“Also when bark fails the park is closed. At the time the administration made these cuts many councillors, including myself, fought against it but we lost.
“Years later, the council is realising its folly, especially after Covid.”
Ms Morley-Smith hopes some of the new money from the Scottish Government will be allocated to outdoor play, adding: “Children have always needed to pursue outdoor play to use up their energy, give them exercise and socialise.
“This is even more important in a post-Covid world. The council made a mistake in allowing its own parks to be left to go to rack and ruin.”
A Highland Council spokesman confirmed: “We are having to close temporarily a number of sites, or take play items out of service, that are deemed unsafe following inspection. This is to protect children.
“The inspection of play parks is a statutory duty and there to protect children.
“The closures are temporary and we will be working with ward members and community groups over the next few months to re-open parks.”
The spokesman said £100,000 had been allocated this year for investment in play-parks but members have yet to agree how that will be split across the areas.
He added: “In addition we understand there to be proposals for additional ward funding, some of which members may want allocated to play parks, but we will have to wait for the budget meeting.
“At the last council meeting members agreed that unspent Covid money could be used for playparks.”
Sources say around 50 play parks across the region had just undergone annual inspections and many showed bark had become too low to be safe.
It was said the council could not take the chance of children falling off equipment on to bark that was deemed too thin to cushion their fall, which could result in claims that might arise from injury.