Tuesday 20th September 2022
Last Thursday was a sad day for Lewes, the county town of East Sussex. The town’s centrally located bus station closed its non existence gates after 68 years of service.
Southdown first opened the bus station in March 1954 with the adjacent garage building coming on stream a few months later. It’s architecture being very typical of bus stations from that era with a first floor overhanging the ground floor offices creating a covered area for passengers to wait around the rectangular circulating area for buses.
Interestingly another very similar bus station in Taunton closed in March last year but that site was not quite as centrally located as in Lewes.
In its heyday as well as a fully fledged bus garage with facilities for staff, the Lewes site included a manned travel shop well stocked with timetables, cafeteria and public toilets. Everything passengers could want while they waited for a bus. Those were the days.
Even before deregulation East Sussex County Council was keen to see some of its subsidised bus routes subjected to competitive tender heralding in an era of lower cost bus operators running rural routes using the bus station as well as Southdown; a trend that accelerated after deregulation and into the 1990s, including the town services.
By the early 2000s Stagecoach (which had bought Southdown from its management in 1989) only operated an inter-urban route passing through Lewes and not surprisingly found it could no longer justify the overhead of a garage and bus station. It sold the operations based there to Brighton & Hove which ran the service (28/29 Brighton to Tunbridge Wells/Ringmer) from neighbouring bases in Brighton and the small outstation Stagecoach had inherited from Southdown in Uckfield.
In that same year, 2006, Stagecoach sold the bus station and garage to a property developer, the Generator Group, and for the last 16 years buses using the three picking up/setting down points on the site as well as layover spaces in between trips for terminating bus routes have been on borrowed time.
Update note: thanks to Robert who reminds me Stagecoach originally sold the site to a developer called Rees Elliot who sought to persuade Waitrose to relocate their store further east by the river and create space for a bus station opposite the current one. This proposal came to nothing and the site had been sold on to the Generator Group by 2020/21.
However, in a dramatic move on 8th September, a planning application submitted earlier this year by the Generator Group to demolish the buildings on the site and build 37 flats, three houses and commercial space was refused by the South Downs National Park Authority.
The Authority raised concerns that no alternative provision for buses (either by land or finance) had been made, the lack of affordable housing in the scheme and an overbearing design for the conservation area.
The Generator Group had already given 28 days notice that bus use on the site would cease at midnight last Thursday, which hasn’t endeared it to local people, District and County Councils nor, presumably, the National Park Authority.
This “case study” brings into focus land use in town centres and the role and relevance of bus stations, and critically, who pays for them. From the Generator Group’s perspective they bought an asset from Stagecoach and neither party in that transaction had any interest in the future provision of bus services in the town.
Being in a prime town centre spot right opposite Waitrose and close to the town’s main retail street you can hardly blame the Generator Group for thinking it could earn a much better return by using the land for homes and retail than making a charge for accommodating a relatively small number of bus departures per hour.
But the fact is buses have traditionally used this land for nearly seventy years and crucially there is nowhere else suitable in the town centre with adequate facilities that could act as a replacement. The Generator Group should have known this when it bought the site from Stagecoach.
Although many towns the size of Lewes survive quite happily without a bus station there needs to be suitable and adequate on-street facilities in a good location instead.
Lewes doesn’t have this, which is the problem. It’s why the replacement facilities introduced last Friday are being referred to as “temporary arrangements”.
I understand the County Council favour installing four new bus stops with two placed either side of Phoenix Causeway as a ‘least worst option’, but such a location would be more inconvenient for passengers (being further from the town centre and entail crossing a busy road for many) as well as necessitating a double run via a roundabout to turn round for some departing buses.
Although the “temporary arrangements” put in place last Friday are unsatisfactory, I reckon they’re better than that option.
For a number of years buses bound for Ringmer, Uckfield and Tunbridge Wells have used a bus stop on street outside Waitrose instead of the bus station. It sort of works but there’s only room for one bus and there’s no shelter by the bus stop.
East Sussex County Council’s “temporary arrangements” in place from Friday involve two new stops at the bottom of School Hill, a short walk away.
The pavement here is quite narrow leading to conflict between queuing passengers and those just passing by…
… and there’d never be room for shelters. Obviously there’s no real time departure information either.
In the short term there’s the problem of motorists not realising what used to be parking places….
…. have now been discontinued. Even though signs have been placed …..
…. so it was good to see enforcement was in action on Friday.
I suspect it will take a bit of getting used to, but this Brighton & Hove bus driver gave a motorist about to park ….
…. a helpful hoot of the horn….
…. to make the point, and encourage the motorists to be on his way.
The County Council and Brighton & Hove Buses had impressively got timetable departure information in the timetable cases on Friday including where to catch your bus in the new regime ….
…. as well as clear bus stop signs showing route numbers and destinations.
The bus stop in Friar’s Walk just across the road junction near Waitrose is now being used more intensively by local town routes and it was good to see this had been updated with clear information.
Meanwhile over in the now disused bus station I came across two of my lovely former colleagues on Friday ensuring notices advising of the new bus stop locations put up by the County Council were placed inside the old timetable cases for protection ….
…. as well as redirecting passengers wandering into the former bus station unaware of the change.
It will be interesting to see what the next development is from both the Generator Group and the County Council.
Meanwhile the otherwise empty cases sadly say it all for Lewes bus station which now has no buses and no alternative use for the site approved.
Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS