Published: 05:00, 22 January 2022
Residents fed up with a town's seemingly never-ending congestion problem will have to accept more homes to get one of the biggest issues fixed.
Councillors who had been waiting over a year to discover what progress had been made on the various junction improvement schemes around Maidstone heard that one key project would likely only go ahead if residents accepted more housing in the area.
KCC has a bold plan for the A26 Tonbridge Road junction with Fountain Lane that involves creating a dual roundabout to replace the existing traffic lights. The junction is the bottleneck at one end of the busy Hermitage Lane.
The scheme would involve demolishing the Taj Barming Indian restaurant to help free up the rush-hour gridlock.
But members of the Maidstone Joint Transportation Board were told that KCC had yet to conclude a deal to purchase the restaurant, and worse, there was in any case insufficient funding available.
The junction was to have been paid for with Section 106 contributions obtained from various developers along Hermitage Lane, but a recent surprise refusal of planning permission by Tonbridge and Malling council for 330 homes from Croudace had left the funding plans hundreds of thousands of pounds short.
KCC’s project manager Barry Stiff said: “Until such time as funding becomes available, it is not possible to predict when this scheme could be delivered.”
In other words, residents will not get their junction improvement until there has been yet more housing development along the Hermitage Lane corridor.
Councillors found this upsetting.
County Cllr John Wilson (Con) said: “That is very, very wrong. The development along Hermitage Lane had only been allowed because it had been said that there was a solution to the Fountain Lane bottleneck. This just proves once again, we should always get infrastructure first.
“Here we are with all the houses built and we still haven’t got a solution in sight for the problem that has been created by the development."
Cllr Paul Harper (Lab) said that it sounded as though the Fountain Lane scheme was still at least three or four years away, which was of no comfort to the residents who were already suffering now.
He said: “This junction often generates chaos at particular times of the day.”
He urged Mr Stiff to see if there were some lesser interim measures that could be introduced immediately to bring at least some partial relief.
Mr Stiff said he would investigate, but added that the problem “had been going on for years.”
He said: “To be honest if there was a simple solution, we would have delivered it by now.”
Cllr Margaret Rose (Lab) warned: "Wasn't here a sink-hole nearby just a little while ago? We don't want a new roundabout only to see it disappear into a sinkhole."
Cllr Springett advised her: "Don't even go there!"
Rob Jarman, Maidstone’s chief planning officer, said that even using the Section 106 monies obtained from all of the recent and proposed developments along Hermitage Lane “on both sides of the border (with Tonbridge and Malling)”, the figure still fell “substantially short” of the £3.2m estimated cost of the proposed Fountain Lane scheme.
The board was meeting for the first time in 12 months because interim meetings had been repeatedly cancelled either through ''lack of business' or because of Covid fears. Even last Wednesday's meeting was deemed to be an "informal meeting," because it had to be held online as a large enough venue could not be found.
Current Government legislation requires all council meetings to be held in person. So members of the board were advised by the chairman Cllr Valerie Springett (Con) that any resolutions they made at the virtual meeting would be taken as advisory, but would hold no formal weight.
Hart Street and Barker Road, junction with The Broadway
However, councillors were asked to decide what to do about congestion at the Hart Street and Barker Road junction with The Broadway.
All councillors agreed there was a serious problem, with the junction being the only way in and out of the area which carried the traffic for 750 homes, an industrial estate, retailers such as B&Q, the Lockmeadow Leisure Complex with its cinema, food hall, fitness club and restaurants, and the County Town's Crown Court building.
They also all agreed that the situation had been exacerbated by the opening of the McDonald's drive-thru at the centre of the junction – though Cllr Dave Naghi (Lib Dem) pointed out the McDonald's had been obliged to make a Section 106 contribution to alleviate the traffic problems, and that KCC had chosen to use £50,000 of that money towards road schemes elsewhere.
KCC project officer Jennie Watson offered councillors seven options to chose from, ranging from several quick-fix options of various forms of one-way system along Barker Road and Hart Street, to substantial redevelopment of the junction to create two lanes both in and out.
But she warned that although the junction changes would be the preferred scheme, they would cost upwards of £300,000 and there was only £32,000 from Section 106 money still in the kitty.
Cllr Rose said that MBC was hoping to make Lockmeadow "the cultural quarter of Maidstone," but warned that she had heard tales of some people stuck for 45 minutes waiting to leave Barker Road after a visit there.
She said: "People will only need to be stuck there once to decide not to go back again."
Cllr Naghi said that people who lived there were now referring to the area as "the Island" because they felt so cut off from the rest of Maidstone.
Ms Watson said that workshops with stakeholders had found little support for one-way systems and so KCC was recommending looking at one of the longer term junction improvement options.
One option might be to construct a relief road through the Maidstone West Station car park, with the consent of British Rail and Southeastern.
Cllr Harper urged against "putting all our eggs in the long-term basket."
He said: "It could end up like the Fountain Lane scheme, put off for decades. Meanwhile the lives of those living there will continue to deteriorate."
Cllr Springett agreed. She said: "Doing nothing would drive people crazy."
Cllr Clive English (Lib Dem) said: "It does need a long-term solution, but I would be reluctant to see nothing happen in the interim."
The committee gradually settled on one of the one-way options as an immediate measure while still looking for a longer term answer.
Only Cllr Tom Cannon (Con) dissented. He said he had attended an number of working group meetings with stakeholders, and he said: "At no point have I heard any of the businesses speak in favour of any of the one-way options."
Despite that, borough council leader Cllr David Burton (Con) proposed that the board go for option 1, which would see KCC use an experimental traffic order to introduce a one-way system with a no-right turn into Hart Street from Barker Road and the introduction of a mini roundabout at the southern end of Barker Road at its junction with Hart Street.
Hart Street would become one-way between the roundabout and its northern exit onto Barker Road.
Traffic wanting to visit McDonald's would therefore have to travel down to the mini-roundabout and turn into Hart Street, then travel back up the one-way towards the restaurant.
Such an order must be in place for a minimum of six months and a maximum of 18 months, after which KCC must decide whether to make it permanent.
It could be removed sooner than 18 months if it were found not to be working.
Barker Road itself will remain two-way.
Cllr Springett said the trial period "would answer the question, would one-way work or not?"
The motion was passed almost unanimously, with just Cllr Cannon abstaining.
Ms Watson said it should be possible to introduce the one-way scheme within six months.
Members also heard reports on a number of other junction schemes that formed part of the Maidstone Integrated Transport package intended to run alongside and enable the development set out for the in its Local Plan.
The projects, which went out to public consultation in January 2020, are supposed to be completed by Autumn 2024, using an £8.9m grant from the Government’s Local Growth Fund.
The A249 Bearsted Road
Mr Stiff said work had been progressing towards providing a link road into Newnham Court.
The scheme was waiting on a planning application for the link to go before KCC planning committee on February 9, and for one dealing with drainage outflow onto the crematorium land to go before Maidstone's planning committee the same month.
A contractor had been appointed, and if the applications were passed, vegetation clearance would begin in February, while construction would start in April and completion would be Spring next year.
A20 Coldharbour roundabout scheme and the London Road/Hall Road scheme
Mr Stiff said that to avoid simultaneous congestion close to two key junctions of the M20, work at Coldharbour would not commence until the Bearsted Road scheme had been completed. However, a design had been agreed and land purchased.
The procurement process to appoint a contractor would begin in February and off-carriageway work would begin in the Autumn.
The scheme is to create a larger roundabout, without the use of the traffic lights that are currently installed. The design has been much criticised by the local councillor Dan Daley (Lib Dem), who argues that the lights are essential.
However, cable ducting would be provided during construction, so that the traffic lights could be re-instated at a later stage if Cllr Daley is proved right.
Mr Stiff said: "We are confident our scheme will work, but traffic flows are very unpredictable as new housing developments come along."
He said: "It seems only sensible to future-proof the scheme by putting in ducting now."
Again to avoid simultaneous points of congestion, work on the Hall Road junction would be delayed until after the completion of the Coldharbour scheme.
The Loose Road Wheatsheaf junction with the A249
The demolition of the Wheatsheaf pub remains part of the plans but will not happen in the near future.
Instead, KCC will use an Experimental Traffic Order to ban traffic from Cranborne Avenue joining the junction, with no change in the current set up other than to re-phase the existing traffic lights. The order will come into force on February 14.
The trial system, being called Phase 1, will run for a minimum of six months, while KCC assesses what effect the closure has on traffic flows.
If successful, the closure will be made permanent with work beginning on the junction changes in the Spring of 2023 with completion expected a year later.
Initially, during Phase 1, new traffic lights will not be installed at the junction of Plains Avenue onto Loose Road, which is where much of the traffic no longer able to join the Loose Road from Cranborne Avenue is expected to emerge.
Cllr Brian Clark (Lib Dem) urged that any traffic assessment should also look at the effect of the closure within the Shepway estate.
He said that many residents feared the closure would lead to greater congestion there.
The A229 Loose Road junction with Armstrong Road/Park Way and the junction with Sheals Crescent
The first scheme is to provide a right-turn lane for southbound traffic and to relocate the pedestrian crossing to the south side of Loose Road.
The second scheme will provide a filter lane for southbound traffic into Sheals Crescent without the need to give way as at present.
These two smaller schemes will commence this summer, while the school holidays are in progress. Work will be carried out by KCC's in-house contractor Amey.
The aim is to complete the works by the Spring of next year and before any major construction at the Wheatsheaf junction gets under way.
A229 Loose Road junction with Cripple Street/Boughton Lane
This scheme has been put on hold. None of the designs so far considered would seem to generate any noticeable improvement in traffic flow, while the need to move underground utilities might be cost prohibitive.
Mr Stiff said it was difficult to devise any solution because the junction "was too constrained."
A20 Ashford Road junction with Willington Street
This scheme is two widen the lanes for eastbound traffic on the A20 and to lengthen the stretch of carriageway where two lanes are available. The idea is to overcome the current situation where east-bound traffic gets held up by large vehicles waiting to turn right into Willington Street.
The scheme will require the listed wall around Mote Park to be re-aligned, and, to date, Maidstone council has declined to grant consent for this.
However, even if consent is granted, KCC will not start work until after the Spring of next year, and it might be further delayed by the need to avoid a clash with any construction at the Wheatsheaf junction.
A274 Sutton Road junction with Willington Street
Mr Stiff said that because this particular scheme was funded entirely by developer contributions, with no time constraint, it would go to the end of the queue, to make sure that it did not edge out other schemes, where there was a requirement to spend Government grants within a certain time frame.
All the schemes which relied on Government funding had been accepted by the overseeing board with the exception of the Ashford Road/Willington Street scheme, above, which could not be signed off until Maidstone council had agreed to give planning consent.
A229 Blue Bell Hill Improvement Scheme
In addition to the Maidstone Integrated Transport Package, councillors also heard a report from KCC highways officer Lee Burchill on the progress of plans to improve links between the M2 and M20 via the A229 Blue Bell Hill.
They were told that two options were under consideration, both would involve creating three lanes heading south on Blue Bell Hill, with various slip road improvements both at the northern end of the hill, on the Lord Lees and Taddington roundabouts, and at the southern end at the Cobtree and Running Horse Roundabouts.
The scheme required government backing and KCC is bidding for £169m towards the estimated £199m cost, with the other £30m coming for developer contributions.
If all goes well, construction might start in the summer of 2026 with completion two years later, but Mr Burchill admitted: "There is an awful lot of work still to do."
Cllr Ian Chittenden (Lib Dem) said: "It's absolutely essential that we get this in place before he Lower Thames Crossing comes into being in 2029."
Cllr Paul Carter (Con) described it as "a long-overdue scheme."