Published: 13:07, 22 February 2021
| Updated: 15:01, 23 February 2021
There is hope that traffic problems experienced in Maidstone will be sorted out before an upgrade to the Lockmeadow Leisure Complex adds more congestion.
Members of Maidstone council's economic regeneration and leisure committee met to consider the borough's plans to spend £900,000 upgrading the facility - which it now owns - with a food hall, outdoor terraced seating area and children's play park.
But while all councillors said they were in favour of the plan, some expressed concerns over adding to the traffic congestion in Barker Road, where the complex is based, and Hart Street, which comes off Barker Road.
Cllr Margaret Rose (Lab) said: "Residents are already frustrated and upset at the existing situation, which one described to me as 'hellish traffic gridlock'.
"I very much hope we can work with KCC to solve these problems."
Cllr Dave Naghi (Lib Dem) wanted to know why the Section 106 money obtained by KCC when planning permission was granted for the McDonald's drive-thru on the corner of Barker Road and The Broadway had not been spent on improving the local road network - instead it had been spent on the Maidstone Gyratory project.
Cllr John Perry (Con) said: "There is major congestion around there - I'm not surprised residents are frustrated."
However, Cllr Paul Harper (Lab), the chairman of the committee had good news for the members.
He said he had been in touch with KCC that day, which had confirmed it would be presenting a proposal to ease the congestion.
One suggestion is a no-right turn into Hart Street by McDonalds for traffic entering from The Broadway.
Instead cars would have to travel the length of Barker Road and turn right into Hart Street by the B&Q store, with Hart Street becoming one way along the loop back to Barker Road.
KCC was proposing to implement a six-month experimental traffic order to test whether the changes would work, he said.
John Foster, the head of regeneration at the council, explained that the precise wording on the Section 106 undertaking when the McDonald's permission had been granted had required KCC to spend the money on "improvements in the vicinity of the site" which it had interpreted as including the gyratory system. He suggested in future, more precise wording might be needed when drawing up such agreements.
Councillors remained concerned that any action by KCC might be a long time coming, and although Mr Foster had relayed that KCC intended to publish a timetable for the works within two weeks, they asked that the matter be placed on the agenda of the Joint Transportation Board to ensure it did not get overlooked.
There was further good news for the scheme from Alexa Kirsting-Woods, the council's head of commissioning and business improvement.
Several councillors at a meeting of the policy and resources committee the week before had worried that the borough was pressing ahead too fast, spending the money before it had caterers lined up to occupy the food hall.
But Mrs Kirsting-Woods said that following a story on Kent Online last week, three more businesses had come forward in addition to the three which had already expressed an interest in taking one of the eight slots available in the hall.
So far they included a Greek food outlet, a jerk Caribbean offer, an Indian caterer, a Polish bakery and a coffee shop.
The council has also secured its first firm tenant: The Gourmet Griddle, which has been operating as a drive-thru behind Lockmeadow, providing free-range gourmet beef burgers.
After the meeting, its owner, James Davis, said: “We knew the plans for the food hall were on the horizon when we took the drive-thru space at Lockmeadow.
"We have been extremely popular since locating ourselves here and it is good to know that our audiences want our food.
"This has given us the confidence to take that step further into the food hall, we are very excited.”
Cllr Harper said: “This is an exciting time for Lockmeadow as we recover from lockdown. The food hall will bring together a wide variety of international foods and we are looking for local businesses who may be looking for premises without the huge set up costs and risk.
“The package we are offering is realistic for fledgling food businesses and we are on the hunt to bring to Maidstone some niche food offerings.”
Cllr Martin Cox (Lib Dem), leader of the council, was strongly in favour of pressing ahead as soon as possible, so that Maidstone was ready to open to business as soon as the lockdown restrictions were lifted.
He did, however, have reservations about calling the venture a food hall. He suggested alternatives of 'Food Pantry' or 'Food Gallery'.
Ms Kirsting-Woods said 'Food Hall' was just a working title and the final name was something they could chew over.
If you are a business interested in taking one of the eight slots available in the 'Food Hall', email Mrs Kirsting-Woods on AlexaKerstingWoods@maidstone.gov.uk