THOUSANDS of people are backing calls to keep Taunton's two park and ride sites open.

There has been almost unanimous opposition to Somerset County Council's proposals to close the facilities for hundreds of commuters and shoppers at Silk Mills and Gateway, Ruishton.

Taunton Deane Borough Council leaders are now calling for urgent talks with their County Hall counterparts to try to save the service.

Protestors claim it will make getting into and out of the county town even harder for drivers, lead to health and environmental problems and hit the town's economy.

Conservative-run Somerset County Council is looking into the possibility of axing both sites as part of a raft of measures to save £14 million - a final decision will be made at the authority's cabinet meeting on Wednesday, September 12.

After the County Gazette exclusively revealed discussions had been held behind closed doors at County Hall, independent councillor John Hunt spent five hours at Silk Mills gauging public opinion.

Mr Hunt, who has since started a petition that has attracted thousands of signatures, said: "People are so upset by this.

"I've had phone calls and e-mails galore and spent the whole weekend dealing with it.

"Closing the two sites would save £145,000 a year. That's not a lot, but people told me they'd be prepared to pay slightly more if it saves the service.

"We're supposed to be making people healthier, but to close these two sites and have more people driving into Taunton would do the opposite. It's absolutely infuriating."

Mr Hunt, who said it costs £2.40 return for one person and a total of £1.70 for five people in the same car, suggested tweaking the timings of the service, which runs every 15 minutes.

He said buses are full at peak times but he often sees only two or three passengers travelling during the rest of the day, when the service could be reduced to save money.

He has this week been poring over the park and ride financial and passenger statistics to see if there is a way to increase revenue sufficiently "to make the service self-sustaining".

Unless the council can come up with £14 million of cuts within four months to ensure it can set a legal budget next February, thus avoiding a section 114 notice, which warns of insufficient funds to pay its bills.

Taunton Deane's Conservative MP Rebecca Pow said: "Clearly an appropriate long term sustainable funding mechanism needs to be assured for the current park and rides and proposed future sites - (a proposed facility for Monkton Heathfield seems unlikely to ever materialise).

"No decisions have actually been made yet regarding closures and I shall be working with key stakeholders to consider what might be done to come up with a pragmatic way forward for the good of the community.

"It would in the first instance be helpful to secure more time to come up with a potential solution and I shall be asking both TDBC and Somerset County Council to consider this."

Gideon Amos, Parliamentary spokesman for the LibDems, who are also running a petition, said: "The local Conservative MP asks for ‘more time’ to prevent the closure of the park and rides, but her party is the one closing the service.

"As MP she has known for at least two years that her Government’s ruthless cuts in funding councils would lead to collapsing services and closures like this.

"The local Conservative councils are now behaving like headless chickens.

"They (TDBC) spend over £1 million on new electronic signs directing people to car parks that are closing, like Coal Orchard, and now say there’s no money.

"LibDems have positive ideas for extra commercial use of park and ride sites to raise money to help keep them open.

"Added to this, the new 20-year Tory Transport Plan for Taunton relies on massively increased bus use when they are actively cutting bus services and environmentally - park and ride is a key measure to improve air quality. The result can only be gridlock and increased air pollution."

He added that the savings equated to just one per cent of the necessary cuts on a service that boasts an average of more than 37,000 trips a month or more than 1,000 cars a day.

Meanwhile, Taunton Deane Borough Council is arranging urgent talks with Somerset County Council to try to save the two park and ride links from possible permanent closure.

Leader Cllr John Williams (Conservative) said he understands the budgetary pressures the county faces but wants to meet county council leaders to "work together to find a solution".

He added: "The park and ride network is essential to Taunton in providing drivers, commuters in particular, with an efficient and cost-effective way of getting into the town centre and to Musgrove Park Hospital.

"It helps to reduce congestion and pollution and is very much part of our garden town ethos and ambitions.

"The easy and plentiful parking on the edge of town plays a key part in our local economy. We need to sit down with our colleagues at County Hall and find a solution.

"I know this is an issue that is of real concern to our residents and businesses so we need to look at how a viable service can be provided in the future."