HUNDREDS of people showed the strength of community opposition to the introduction of on-street parking charges at a public meeting in Windermere last night (Thursday).

The meeting was organised by the newly-formed Windermere and Bowness Action Group in response to Cumbria County Council's plans to bring parking meters to the streets of the towns.

The cash-strapped county council say the move is necessary to plug a financial black hole in its budget following swingeing cuts in central government funding.

But the majority of the 330 people who turned out to the meeting at the Ladyholme centre have called for the decision to be reversed.

"The council does not recognise the potential damage it would have on an already fragile trading situation," said Bill Smith, a Windermere Town Coun and one of the founders of the campaign group.

"Businesses need every incentive to get customers through their door."

Mr Smith, who works as an expert in promoting retail on the high street, added: "Putting a charge will decimate the way people shop."

One business owner told the meeting: "Councillors are put in the public to work on our behalf but are not. Enough is enough."

Another said: "This will push people away. We will have ghost villages."

And another added: "The speed limit on Windermere put the final nail in the coffin. This is like putting 6ft of earth on top."

Nigel Wilkinson, of Windermere Lake Cruises, one of the largest tourism operators in the Lakes, called for a economic impact study to be conducted.

"This decision cannot be made without it," he said.

"I am not sure whether our council decision makers realise how marginal some businesses are operating at.

"They have seven months of income with 12 months of expenses."

But Coun James Airey, leader of the Conservatives on CCC, said more money should not be wasted on an economic impact study.

"We simply need to stop it," he said. "We must do what we can to stop these insane proposals."

David Williams, a Bowness Conservative Coun on SLDC, dubbed the plans 'catastrophic'.

He urged everybody who attended to write to the Chief Executive of the county council, Diane Wood, and its leader Stewart Young.

"If they have to take two tonnes of letters to the rubbish tip they will have to think twice," he said.

The meeting was also attended by members of Future Ambleside.

The group has concerns over plans for two new hotels in Ambleside, along with on-street parking charges, future homes and Sainsbury's coming to the town.

Fiona Howarth, speaking on behalf of the group, called for a unified approach.

"Let's get every town affected to get its communities to show their disgust at what CCC are doing," she said.

Jim Bland, Conservative county coun for the Lyth Valley, said: "Where there's no parking charges there is prosperity.

"It doesn't take a genius to work that out.

"It's taken ten years to get over the 10mph speed limit. This is going to take the ground under your feet and put you right back in the hole."

South Lakes MP Tim Farron said there is still time to stop the charges.

"Use the strength of feeling to make it clear - go find the money from somewhere else," he said.

Pat Bell, who attended in place of cabinet member for finance and Windermere Coun Jo Stephenson, said: "It's really sad this meeting is taking place today and not during the consultation."

She said it was important the community fed in ideas to the South Lakeland Local Committee, who will be responsible for fine-tuning the plan later in the year.