A rise in car parking charges at Westminster Lodge has been described as a "fitness tax" by disgruntled users and community groups.

St Albans District Council slashed free car parking from three hours to just two hours on April 1 and since then the £2 charge for three hours is said to be hitting the pockets of thousands of people in the city.

The council has defended the increase saying it is designed to make the most of available capacity at its car parks.

But David Gilroy from Pool Too Small, who has been visiting Westminster Lodge for 41 years, said the council was ‘just milking the cash cow’.

Mr Gilroy of Park Avenue: "The council has made a big mistake and they are just milking the cash cow.

"This is hitting hundreds of people, if not thousands of people seven days a week. This is not just a fitness tax, but a business tax because people will be put off by the car park charges, which could be bigger than annual membership.

Mr Gilroy said the charges "made a mockery of a bargain" for people over 60, who received a discounted rate at the Holywell Hill leisure centre.

The 71-year-old continued: "The council promote healthy living and the importance of exercise but introduce car parking charges, which will make it very difficult for people to visit Westminster Lodge.

"Historically we have had always had three free hours. Having to get in and get out in two hours is totally against the ethos of Westminster Lodge as a relaxed Jewel in the St Albans Leisure Crown.

"I am speaking for a lot of people and their families.  It shouldn’t just be about the money, it should be about the quality of life. We should be providing the best for our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and our future generations. "

Stuart Middleton, St Albans Striders chairman, said the changes were a "kick in the teeth"

He said: "With over 500 members, I find it disappointing and surprising that the council proceeded to introduce these changes without seeking to engage in consultation with us.

"We are extremely proud to represent the city to a very high standard at running events throughout the UK and further afield, but this will have impact both our membership numbers and our training schedules. 

Mr Middleton continued: "Our main aim is to encourage grass roots participation in sport and provide well-organised, safe races for the people of St Albans, but these changes certainly feel like a bit of a kick in the teeth."

Jack Brooks, St Albans strider member said he was affected both as a gym user and a runner.

He added:  "My usual session in the gym used to last about two and a half hours. I have had to reduce this to under two hours. Otherwise I would have to pay two pounds extra on every visit.

"Two pounds extra three times a week for fifty two weeks each year amounts to a tidy sum."

Mike Lovelady, head of legal, democratic and regulatory services at the council said: "We know free parking is important to leisure users at Verulamium Park so we have been careful to ensure you still get two hours parking for free.  After that a fee is payable.

"Prior to the changes, Westminster Lodge car park was often full, meaning that leisure users were unable to park. The new tariff structure at Westminster Lodge car park is aimed at increasing the turnover in parking spaces enabling more people to park. Anyone wanting to park for longer than two hours can do so by paying on arrival or later by mobile phone to extend their stay. New clearer signage has also been introduced at Westminster Lodge car park as well as more secure and reliable pay and display machines."