Lewes loses its bus station

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.

The current cafe on the site closes at the end of the month

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.

Before
After (artist’s impression as proposed, but refused)

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.

Lewes bus station site outlined in red

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”.

Temporary arrangements are shown expiring on 4th November

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….

Before

…. have now been discontinued. Even though signs have been placed …..

After

…. 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.

Before
After

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 ….

Hilary

…. as well as redirecting passengers wandering into the former bus station unaware of the change.

David

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.

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThS

16 thoughts on “Lewes loses its bus station

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  1. This is a real shame. We all knew it was on borrowed time but I think we all hoped that, after all this time, D-day would never come.

    I always made a beeline for the bus station whenever I was in town, and having a centrally located hub for services helps to attract people who can otherwise wander around aimlessly hunting for the right stop around town.

    Speaking as an enthusiast, I would have loved to have a wander around the former facilities to see how much of a time warp was inside the staff facilities and shed!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Sadly, it is the same across much of the country. Even councils where they own the bus stations are keen to sell them

    Normally no proper alternative arrangements are mad and buses just s terminate or stop ad random stop around a town making interchange even more difficult

    No arrangement’s are made for buses to lay over nor are toilets made available

    Sadly Bus Back Better has led to no improvement and the slow insidious decliner of bus service continues. Even some of the better bus companies such as Brighton & Hove and Reading are now going into decline

    Even councils that got BSIP funding have to date done little to nothing to improves services

    There is evidence as well that the removal of bus station leads to a loss of bus passengers, typically between 5% and 10% and is certainly not going to attract new passengers something that is going to be vital for the survival of bus companies

    Many bus services could be on borrowed time. The Covid funding was extended for another 6 months but at a lower amount. Costs have risen a lot in that time and the recovery in passenger numbers has not materialized

    There is the £2 fare from next month but I am not convinced that is a sensible use of the money. I doubt it will attract many new passengers particularly as it is temporary

    In very many area’s the services are of no use to potential fare paying passengers as they do not start early enough or run late enough or even go where you need to get to. They are also far to infrequent and unreliable with poor time keeping and cancelation still at unacceptably high levels

    Has anyone found anywhere where bus services are improving?

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    1. No-one’s actually got BSIP funding yet, which is why you haven’t seen any improvements… the actual cash is months away in most cases.

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  3. Mere detail but Generator were not the original purchasers, they purchased the site a couple of years ago for £2.5m. I wonder how many other bus hubs are privately owned?
    SDNPA Policy SD57 amongst other details requires alternative suitable provision to be in place before planning permission is considered for the East Street site. It also stipulates that East Street area and the formerly named North Street Quarter should be considered as one, although they accept that planning applications will be submitted separately over a period of time.
    Interestingly named Human Nature purchased part of the area to the North of Phoenix Causeway in April 2021 and have suggested a site on their development for a bus hub but there is no certainty that it meets the requirements. Waitrose will also eventually relocate to this area so with the planned over 400 properties, health centre, workspace, cafes, galleries and public square as well a a supermarket and connections to the town centre, this should be considered for the bus hub. Bearing mind this redevelopment has been on the cards since 2019!
    The parking restrictions at the new bus stops expire on 4th November because other regulations come into effect, as normal, on 5th November.

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  4. same has happened in Taunton (First Somerset) opened by Tillings in 1953 style is close to Lewes Closed and empty pending a sell off. Buses out on the street

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  5. I well remember the bus station in the eighties. Richard ran the well stocked office. He was interested to get information on neighbouring operators and, when I visited Lewes, I used to drop off Green Line and London Country publicity for him. This was well before the, “it’s all available on line” Internet.

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  6. Bus stations are “gateways” to a town, arriving passengers deserve to feel welcomed and valued. Then there is all the greenwash from local councils busying themselves declaring climate emergencies, and talking up active travel. The latter always directly references cycling, (but never provides cycle lanes of the quality necessary to enable residents to use bikes as a safe mode of transport for short trips), and walking, but never mention buses. Elites and decision makers don’t use buses, they don’t need buses themselves. They project this mindset onto everyone else.

    A couple of years ago Corsham in Wiltshire was promoting its neighbourhood plan. I responded to the consultation that housing development should be accessible by bus and that the plan should state this. The response was “we don’t have any control over buses “.

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  7. I’m suspecting that bus networks, and the bus stations that serve them, are a dying breed. Nostalgia will not save them.

    Tourism might prolong the life for a few, if we’re lucky. But it’s like trying to cure a terminal illness.

    The future of buses is in short hop services in built up areas. It’s been the pattern for over 40 years, COVID and recession will turn it into a flood. Sorry, we can’t turn back the tide, not even in our most optimistic daydreams.

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    1. It is the town services and rural service that bus companies are axing

      Cuts announced in the last few days are In Cambridgeshire. Suffolk, Bedfordshire. Hertfordshire and Leicestershire

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  8. I was one of many who attended the excellent Lewes bus running day earlier this year which raised funds for Ukraine.

    While I was there I overheard a woman complaining to one of the running day volunteers about the proposed closure, not because of the affect on bus services but because it would make it more difficult for her to find somewhere to park, and I watched the same volunteer turning away umpteen motorists who wanted to park there.

    I doubt most residents of Lewes cared about it as a bus station; to them it was just a free car park.

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  9. I think that motorists need more than the hoot of a horn to stop them driving and parking where they know that they aren’t ment too.How about a police force to whom car crime means the far more common and deadly crimes by cars than crime against cars?

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