Published: 15:56, 21 January 2022
| Updated: 19:15, 21 January 2022
It has been confirmed that Maidstone's Park and Ride service will end despite attempts to have the move reversed.
The council's strategic policy and infrastructure committee had made a decision last month to decline a request from Arriva bus company for an additional subsidy to run the service that had seen passenger numbers plummet during Covid to the extent that it was no longer viable.
Shortly afterwards, Arriva declared it could not continue and served notice on the council to end its contract.
The decision caused widespread alarm, not least because it was taken in secret with none of the background financial figures being made available to the public.
However, figures began to emerge during the new debate on Wednesday night, when Lib Dem Cllrs Derek Mortimer, Brian Clark and Cynthia Robertson brought the matter to the senior policy and resources committee for review.
Cllr Mortimer also presented a petition signed by 1,483 residents calling on the council to re-think.
Cllr Mortimer told the committee that "residents are very unhappy and surprised by this quick and secret decision."
He quoted one resident who told him: "It's our Park and Ride, we should have been asked for our views."
Cllr Mortimer found surprise support for that view from the opposite side of the Town Hall chamber, where the council's Conservative deputy leader, Cllr Jonathan Purle, said: "Even as deputy leader, I found out about this half an hour after the decision had been made.
"I do hope that in future we could avoid the situation where critical services are able to close without some sort of public engagement."
But Cllr Paul Cooper (Con), who had chaired the original meeting, said his committee's decision had been an "eminently sensible one."
He said: "This was not a decision to end the Park and Ride service. It was a decision not to give another £200,000 of taxpayers' money directly to a commercial operator."
He suggested: "There may still be a future for Park and Ride in Maidstone," if an alternative scheme could be found.
Cllr Clark quoted a 2018 report from the KCC's then Director of Environment, Waste and Transport, Barbara Cooper, who had described Park and Ride as a key part of Maidstone’s adopted Local Plan and "too important to lose."
That point was taken up by Cllr Clive English (Lib Dem) who said that as both the adopted Local Plan and the Local Plan Review relied heavily on Park and Ride as a means of mitigating traffic congestion from increased housing, loss of the service would cause "a major issue."
He said there would be a need to find alternative mitigation measures quickly.
The leader of the council, Cllr David Burton (Con) took issue with repeated claims that Park and Ride helped cut pollution and improve air quality.
He queried whether a bus with its large engine and almost no passengers aboard caused less pollution than the corresponding number of extra cars, pointing out the improvement to air quality was coming largely from technical advances on new engines.
With buses typically renewed every 15 years and cars every five years, he argued, technological gains would be realised far quicker by substituting cars.
He stated categorically: "I do not believe that Park and Ride improves air quality in our borough."
He also questioned whether Park and Ride really cut congestion, saying that people sometimes travelled extra miles to get to the Park and Ride sites.
He pointed out that in previous years, a Lib Dem administration had closed a Park and Ride site at Coombe Quarry, and a Conservative administration had closed one at Eclipse Park, but he said that in neither case had there been any noticeable increase in congestion.
During the debate, it emerged that many Maidstone council staff were given a free pass to use on Park and Ride as part of their perks. The council's chief executive Alison Broom confirmed that the council was looking at providing staff with bus or rail passes instead when Park and Ride ended.
It was said that the Park and Ride buses were carrying around 500 passengers a day. Arriva said it needed to carry 1,100 to break even.
Cllr Martin Cox (Maidstone Group) said: "If I could see a way of making the service work, I would be enthusiastically supporting it. But Covid has changed the tables."
Cllr Steve Munford (Ind) agreed. He said: "It was my casting vote that saved Park and Ride the last time its future was discussed. But I have changed my mind. It's not possible to keep pouring money into it."
Cllr Burton said the service was being subsidised in four ways. He said: "We pay for all the infrastructure at a cost of around £160,000 a year. Arriva wants another £200,000. KCC subsidizes many of those who use it with bus passes and we give free rides to our own staff."
Cllr Clark said the council was being short-sighted.
The problem had been caused by Covid, he said: "Things will change at the other end of this."
But Mrs Broom doubted that. She said: "As a result of Covid new work patterns are emerging. It's is unlikely we will ever return to the situation we were in pre-Covid."
However, Cllr Cynthia Robertson pointed out that that very day the Government had lifted the restrictions requiring people to work from home if possible.
Cllr Louise Brice (Con) dismissed the petition, saying: "It is easy to sit at home and sign a petition. But there are more people signing the petition than using the bus."
Several councillors suggested officers look at alternative provisions, with a different transport operator or perhaps running a "skeleton service."
Cllr Paul Harper (Lab) warned: "Once you lose a public service like this, it's gone for good. We'll never get in back."
Cllr Purle proposed that the previous decision not to pay any extra subsidy stand. He won by 10 votes to four.
The two Park and Ride sites - at Mote Park and Allington - will now close on February 19.