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Time ticks by and still no progress on Maidstone’s Wheatsheaf junction

It is over four years since a popular landmark pub was closed to make way for a junction improvement.

Yet, as reporter Alan Smith finds out, The Wheatsheaf still stands proudly on the Loose Road in Maidstone at the convergence of the A229 to Hastings and the A249 to Headcorn, as it has since 1830, begging the question, will the new junction ever happen?

How we like to remember the Wheatsheaf - before the boarding went up
How we like to remember the Wheatsheaf - before the boarding went up

The last pint was pulled in January 2019 after KCC bought the building for a rumoured £500,000 so it could be pulled down to make way for an “extended signalised junction”.

Demolition was scheduled for July 2021, but still nothing has happened.

South ward councillor Brian Clark (Lib Dem) said: “It is looking increasingly unlikely that KCC will ever demolish the Wheatsheaf pub, on cost grounds, so the changes at the Wheatsheaf will likely bring even less capacity benefits than the design which went to public consultation in early 2020.”

Plans for the junction improvement then showed that traffic travelling south from Maidstone, towards the A274 Sutton Road, would be initially in two lanes, as now.

They would meet a set of traffic lights just before the Cranborne Avenue junction on the left.

The new junction - simples!
The new junction - simples!

From there, the inside lane would remain a dedicated straight-on lane for Sutton Road, while the outside lane curved to the right for traffic intending to go up the A229, Loose Road, towards Maidstone Fire Station.

But first, such traffic would potentially be held at another set of traffic lights to allow northbound traffic coming from Sutton Road and heading for town to cross in front.

Traffic travelling north along the Sutton Road, away from the Kent Police building would have a choice of three lanes - which is one more lane than currently.

The left-hand lane would become for traffic turning left only, that is traffic wanting to sweep round what would have been the front of the Wheatsheaf pub and slip into the A229 Loose Road heading towards Linton and Hawkhurst.

The other two lanes would continue on to town, along what is confusingly also called the Loose Road.

Renee and Rosa Kenny - the pub's last landlords
Renee and Rosa Kenny - the pub's last landlords

For traffic travelling along the Loose Road, towards the town centre from the south, there would be two lanes as you approach the junction.

The inside of the left-hand lane would be straight on for Maidstone town centre only.

The outside lane would be for straight-on traffic and also for those wanting to turn right and go south along Sutton Road.

There would be a set of lights before the junction for both lanes, and another set for traffic turning right, where waiting vehicles would queue in a gap between two large islands.

There would also be two pedestrian-controlled crossings - one on the northward leg of the junction and one on the southward.

Residents with a petition against the closure of Cranborne Avenue - the photo was taken eight years ago - in 2015
Residents with a petition against the closure of Cranborne Avenue - the photo was taken eight years ago - in 2015

Unfortunately, the scheme only works if Cranborne Avenue is closed to traffic, which Cllr Clark says is “highly unpopular” and unacceptable.

Cllr Clark said: “It is astonishing. We are now six years on from the adoption of the borough council’s Local Plan in 2017 and, beyond closing Cranborne Avenue with plastic barriers and the still-to-be completed Armstrong Road junction, we seem to have a complete failure to deliver almost all of the identified junction improvements necessary as mitigation for the extra house-building.

“The administrations at both MBC and KCC should feel a deep sense of shame for such a tremendous failure to mitigate our chronic congestion, which is increasing on a daily basis given the backdrop of ever-increasing housing development.”

The junction with Cranborne Avenue has been closed under an Experimental Traffic Order since March 24, 2022.

Planners were confident that closing the junction would save 17 seconds on the average journey time of vehicles progressing through the Wheatsheaf Junction – even without any further junction changes. The public has not yet seen any evidence of that claim.

Will Cranborne Avenue re-open?
Will Cranborne Avenue re-open?

But residents from Shepway were – and remain – furious because they say that any saving – even if it exists – is more than lost by the extra time it takes them to join the Loose Road at Plains Avenue.

There have also been safety issues raised, with motorists saying that the Plains Avenue junction, which doesn’t have the benefit of traffic lights – is dangerous to cross.

A recent accident there would seem to prove the case.

Marion Crescent resident Andrew Hammersley said: “It appears that KCC is not able to show that the closure of Cranborne Avenue has yielded the improvement in traffic flow that they were expecting.

“That is no surprise to residents. If only KCC had paid heed to the initial results of the public consultation (where a vast majority opposed the closure) we would not be in this mess now.

Happier time - inside the Wheatsheaf in days gone by
Happier time - inside the Wheatsheaf in days gone by

“KCC needs to drop this inept plan and re-open Cranborne Avenue.”

Initially, KCC intended to close Cranborne Road only for six months while it assessed the knock-on effects – before making a decision. But the “experimental closure” is now nearly 18 months old – the maximum time permitted under the law.

We asked KCC whether the junction scheme would ever go ahead. It seems we will not know until KCC finally makes a decision on the Cranborne Avenue junction closure.

A spokesman said: “The Experimental Traffic Regulation Order for the trial closure of Cranborne Avenue is still valid until the end of September.

“The order will remain in place while officers assess the results of this work and respond to all objections accordingly.”

How it all looked back in June 2021 before any changes. Photo Hawkeye Aerial Media
How it all looked back in June 2021 before any changes. Photo Hawkeye Aerial Media

“Traffic surveys were carried out prior to the closure and have continued while the closure is in place.

“We will present the results to the public when all necessary traffic surveys have been finalised and the analysis of the data is complete.

“KCC is continuing to monitor the impact to the A229, the A274 and the immediate road network in terms of safety and delay.”

When the junction scheme was first costed, the estimate was for £5.63m. Since then, we have had rampant inflation reaching a peak of 11.1% in October 2022.

Will KCC now have the money to fund the new junction in any case?

The Wheatsheaf roundabout in the early 1950s
The Wheatsheaf roundabout in the early 1950s

The junction is often referred to as “the Wheatsheaf roundabout” which may mystify some readers since there is no roundabout there.

The answer is that there was once.

Susan Black recently spent a “nightmare“ 45 minutes travelling from the town centre to her home in Lewis Court Drive, Boughton Monchelsea – a distance of 3.7 miles and an average speed of 4.9mph.

She said: “I remember the roundabout at the Wheatsheaf well. I used to live in (nearby) Marion Crescent then.

“Couldn’t we just have the roundabout back?”

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