AN INCREASE in car parking charges at Woking Park threatens to have a devastating effect on those using the nearby leisure facilities, organisers of activity groups say.

The charging regime has recently changed from the first three hours of parking being free to just the first two hours, with a charge of £1.80 now imposed on the third hour.

Diann Arnfield, outings organiser at the Woking 50-plus Club, contacted the News & Mail with a dire warning entitled “How to kill a Leisure Centre” and chronicling the immediate effect on her club’s members.

“It’s the first day of increased prices in Woking Park car park and the result? After a 2pm start, an empty sports hall by 3.50 and no one in the cafe either,” she said.

“The cost of a 50-plus session has now increased to £6.20, good value for three hours’ of activity with time for a chat over a cup of tea but not now it’s dropped to two hours’ activity for £6.20.”

One of Diann’s members, Sarah, described her experience and fears for the future.

“I am in my 70s and have just been diagnosed with autism,” she said. “The best way for me to socialise is through sport and I go to the Leisure Centre to meet and play a variety of sports with friends at 50-plus Club, which holds three three-hourly sessions every week.

“Vigorous activity not only lifts my mood, it helps me to relax and also keeps my weight under control because of the medication I have to take.

“Before the recent change to the parking charges I paid only £2.60 per week, but now for the same amount of time I must pay £9.60. Over 50 weeks that costs £480, and the annual membership brings it to more than £800 per year.

“I am now too fearful to use my car when I want to stay three-plus hours at the Leisure Centre in case I inadvertently overrun the time and get fined.

“As there is no direct bus from Horsell, I am now having to walk, carrying all my sports gear in a backpack, which takes 45 minutes and can be a struggle in bad weather.

“Even then there is no guarantee that there will be enough members available to make up the numbers we need to play, as those who have to drive are watching the clock. The parking cost after two free hours is now too expensive.

“How can I maintain my necessary exercise routine when the cost of parking has become unaffordable? I find the whole situation totally depressing.”

Defending the increased charges, Cllr Will Forster, the deputy leader of the governing Liberal Democrats on the borough council, said: “With the council in a dire financial situation - debts of £2 billion and having to make annual debt repayments of £56 million, more than five times the revenue from council tax - the council is trying to avoid a section 114 [essentially the council running out of money].

“The council is starting to make really tough decisions to try to balance its books in case the Government does not help. Changing the hours people need to pay in Woking Park is one of them.

“This was a difficult decision, as health and wellbeing is a priority. The changes were carefully considered in consultation with Freedom Leisure [which manages the Leisure Centre in partnership with the council] so that the vast majority of Leisure Centre users, around 80%, would be unaffected.

“Charging has only been introduced to recover the cost of running this car park. Last financial year, the council spent around £36,000 on Woking Park's car park, and received income of £22,000, a deficit of around £14,000.

“The change is linked to recouping the losses.”

Have you been affected by the new charges at Woking Park car park? Tell us about your experience at [email protected].