Published: 11:47, 11 January 2019
| Updated: 13:17, 11 January 2019
"It will be the biggest mistake this council has ever made"... that was the warning to Canterbury city councillors last night as they debated the highly controversial plans to build a multi-storey car park.
Petitions calling on the Tory-led authority to ditch or defer the £9.1 million project had gained thousands of supporters before the full council meeting held at the Guildhall.
Labour and Lib Dem councillors backed the appeals as they called on the members to "rethink and cancel" the Station Road West project.
Yet - despite a hotly contested debate on the topic, and a large turnout from disgruntled clean air campaigners - the two petitions were rejected, meaning the council can now ready itself for the start of the car park's construction next month.
Dubbed "Canterbury's version of Brexit" due to its huge divisiveness, the scheme has split opinion ever since the 370-space car park was first envisaged by the council.
Speaking at last night's meeting, Anna Peckham urged councillors to abandon the project.
She said: "Those signing the petition include residents, business and shop owners, taxi drivers, pedestrians, parents, students, rail commuters and car drivers - a real cross section. It is clear the majority of people don't want this car park."
Cllr Michael Dixey (Lib Dem) said: "This will be the biggest mistake this council has ever made, and one of the most controversial."
He also labelled the council's advice for mums with pushchairs to use the car ramps due to the lack of a lift as the "final insult".
Fellow party member Cllr Nick Eden-Green argued there would be a net loss of spaces as a result of the build and warned it is the "last thing the city needs".
Those who spoke out against the multi-million pound project were met with applause from the public. Yet, the clapping between intervals soon stopped when chairman of the meeting Lord Mayor Colin Spooner threatened to throw out the culprits if they continued.
In response to claims over a loss of spaces, Cllr Ben Fitter-Harding highlighted how there are 129 spaces at the current station car park.
Authority leader Cllr Simon Cook, who has always spoken in steadfast defence of the project, said: "You [Cllr Eden-Green] keep pedalling this arrant nonsense about the number of parking reducing.
"He's counting the overflow car park, that car park didn't exist before the multi-storey project started... it's cherry picking on a colossal scale, an arrant nonsense, quite ridiculous indeed.
"The idea that this is going to be some massive producer of extra pollution is frankly ridiculous."
Cllr Ashley Clark, who praised the proposed provision of electric vehicle charging points, said: "Parked cars do not pollute. Cars going round and round in circles pollute more.
"The time has come for Canterbury to seize the moment and look ahead, not just at the here and now. That means we need infrastructure, and that means getting this thing built."
Following 20 minutes of discussion on each petition - one calling for the car park vision to be scrapped, and the other calling for a delay in construction - both were rejected.
It is now likely that the city council will put pen to paper and sign off on the deal for construction firm Willmott Dixon to begin the build.
Labour has however pledged to scrap the project if it gains control of the city council in May’s elections.
Cllr Simon Warley, a representative for the Westgate ward, believes the divisive scheme could still be stopped in its tracks - despite the fact engineers would be three months into its construction.
He said: “If Labour gain control of the city council we will stop the car park if it’s not too late to do so - too much work may have been done by then and/or penalty clauses under the contract for its construction may be operational.
“The key words are ‘if we can stop it’. We’re not aware of the arrangements of the contract but virtually everyone in Canterbury doesn’t want this to happen."
He says the millions of pounds borrowed for the car park project should be diverted to tackling the shortfall in social housing in the district.
Speaking to the Kentish Gazette earlier this week, authority leader Simon Cook (Con) said Labour’s gesture has been poorly thought through.
“I think Labour would find it difficult to stop the car park’s construction,” he said.
“They’re offering the moon on a stick without anything to back it up. People expect their politicians to be reasonable and pragmatic - not wave promises which are more heat than light.
“This is a cheap gesture which is beneath Simon [Cllr Warley]. I thought he was better than that. I find it quite sad that Labour are waving around the idea without completely thinking it through. I’m disappointed.
“I’m not fond of empty gestures which lack substance; instead, I like to deliver what has been promised. I do appreciate there are people who are against it - I’m not insensitive to that - but as a council we have to do what we think is right.”
Before yesterday's meeting, a concept map showing how Canterbury West station will be redesigned was revealed.