Published: 05:00, 16 December 2021
| Updated: 15:59, 16 December 2021
The future for Maidstone's Park and Ride Service looks bleak, but there is just a slim chance it may be saved.
Arriva announced last Friday that it would be withdrawing the service on February 19 after Maidstone council declined to give the company financial support to help it through Covid.
It is understood that the borough's strategic planning and infrastructure committee chaired by Cllr Paul Cooper was asked on Tuesday last week to consider a request from Arriva for a grant of £25,000 a month for three months to keep the service running. The exact details are not known because the committee considered that matter on "yellow papers" - ie in secret, with those councillors present forbidden from sharing any information with anyone outside the council.
KentOnline gave the council the opportunity to say if the figure was inaccurate, but it declined to do so, saying: "As the information contained within the report is considered exempt information, we are unable to comment on the accuracy of your statement."
However, two separate groups of councillors have filed call-in requests, asking for the matter to be brought back for consideration by a second committee, which will now happen at a meeting of the policy and resources committee on Wednesday next week at 6.30pm in the Town Hall. Once again the council will be excluding all public and the Press from the debate.
Cllr Clive English (Lib Dem) and Cllr Paul Harper (Lab) filed the first request, which was followed by one from three Lib Dem Cllrs Cynthia Robertson, Derek Mortimer and Brian Clark.
Cllr Clark said: "We strongly feel this was the wrong decision."
Arriva said the service had been heavily hit by the Covid pandemic which had reduced the number of passengers using the service, making it uneconomic.
The company's commercial head Michael Jennings said: "We worked closely with the council to try to avoid closure, but sadly an agreement could not be reached."
Cllr Clive English said: "Although national grant funding is uncertain after April, with passenger numbers increasing, it is likely that council support would only be needed short term while alternative funding options are sought.
"It is completely unacceptable to do nothing and watch this valued service close down.
"I feel break-even support should be provided."
Cllr Clark said: “Allowing the Park and Ride service to fail due to reduced passenger numbers, clearly due to the pandemic, is a travesty.
"The decision wipes out many sustainable travel opportunities, hindering our drive to improve air quality in the urban area along with our plan to reach net zero.
"With housing numbers and congestion in the borough at an all-time high, this is a catastrophic step backwards."
Since the announcement, the Prime Minister has moved the country into Plan B, urging people to work from home if possible, making it unlikely that passenger numbers would recover soon.
If the committee's decision is maintained and the service is withdrawn as planned, the question remains what will happen to the two Park and Ride car parks at Willington Street and at London Road.
Both are owned by Maidstone council. The Willington Street site lies within the environs of Mote Park which would make any development sensitive.
The London Road site, off Beaver Road, close to the DFS store is in private ownership and was only leased by the council.
The area has been the focus of heavy attention from housing development companies in recent times. The new Orchard estate had been built opposite on the other side of London Road with 143 new homes; permission has been granted on one site off Beaver Road for 106 homes, and an outline application is about to be submitted for another site for 435 homes.
A council spokesman said: "As MBC has only just learnt of Arriva’s intention to cease the service in February 2022, it is too early for the council to comment on the future of the sites."
The Park and Ride service has already shrunk from its initial four sites to two.
A Park and Ride at Eclipse Park, known as Sittingbourne Road, closed in February 2016, after the landowners there, the Gallagher Group, could not reach agreement with the council on the renewal fee for the lease of the land.
The site has since been developed for the new M&S store.
There was also a much smaller site at Combe Quarry in Tovil. The council took the decision to close that one back in 2007, because the subsidy per user was considered to be too much. It has been redeveloped for housing as the Laycock Gardens estate.
The Park and Ride Service was first established in 1988. At its peak it offered 1,600 parking spaces for commuters, and carried 450,000 passengers a year.
In 2008 a fifth Park and Ride was briefly proposed at Langley Park Farm on the Sutton Road, but the scheme never went ahead.
Cllr Paul Harper said the council's decision to allow the scheme to fold had been taken too quickly.
He said: "Even if an agreement couldn't be reached with Arriva, there are other bus operators who could have been approached.
"Of course the service has been adversely affected by Covid, but that's not going to last for ever. The council's policy is to become carbon neutral by the end of the decade. A Park and Ride Service is essential to help meet that target.
"The problem is that once these sites are lost to housing, we won't be able to get them back when we need them."
Cllr Paul Cooper (Con), the chairman of the strategic planning and infrastructure committee, could not be reached for comment, but the council leader, Cllr David Burton (Con), who was not involved directly with the decision was asked why the council was not prepared to help Arriva survive the current crisis with a funding subsidy. Cllr Burton said: "You have got to take into account the amount of that subsidy compared with the number of users."
He said: "You have to ask is this the best use of the town's resources? People have not returned to using buses and I think the Park and Ride is the tip of the iceberg."
Cllr Burton would not say how much subsidy Arriva had sought, but added: "It's their decision that they can't continue with so few passengers. They are saying they can't make it work, there's a very substantial gap in the finances."
Asked if the council was considering other operators taking on the service, Cllr Burton said the strategic planning and infrastructure committee had issued an instruction to officers to look at alternatives.
But he added: "This to some extent was a bolt out of the blue."
He said there was no plan in place yet for the Park and Ride sites and what their future uses might be. Christian Obray, a spokesman for Arriva, said it was not too late for the decision to be reversed and the service saved, but he warned: "It would have to be with the financial support we asked for and would have to move along at some pace."