Posted: 20.07.21 at 13:07 by Daniel Mumby - Local Democracy Reporter
A Somerset council has been accused of deliberately hindering progress on new ‘active travel’ routes for pedestrians and cyclists
Numerous groups across Somerset have been campaigning to create new routes which allow pedestrians and cyclists to travel between different settlements, reducing car usage and promoting healthier lifestyles.
Nearly a dozen groups have written to Somerset County Council (which is responsible for highway matters), accusing its officers of obstructing their efforts by being “conservative” and having a “contemptuous” attitude.
The council has responded that it wished to move forward with new schemes and was seeking further funding from the Department for Transport (DfT).
Active travel routes are designed to encourage people to travel for work or leisure purposes by walking or cycling, reducing both congestion on the roads and pollution of the surrounding area as well as promoting healthier lifestyles.
Many different initiatives are currently being explored, with Somerset’s district councils looking at how they can support campaigns in their area.
Mendip District Council identified 14 ‘missing links’ in June 2020 which could be connected to existing cycle networks, helping to create the ‘Somerset Circle’ in partnership with the Strawberry Line.
When completed, the Somerset Circle would provide a 76-mile traffic-free circuit which would link the north Somerset coast (including Weston-super-Mare and Clevedon), Bristol, Bath, the Mendip Hills and Cheddar.
In December 2020, South Somerset District Council voted to grant up to £20,000 on a new study with the Somerset Rail to Trail Project, exploring whether a stretch of the former Somerset and Dorset Railway line between Bruton and Wincanton could be re-purposed.
The council is also working with housing developers to extend the Stop Line Way through new developments on the A358 Tatworth Road in Chard, removing the need to cross over the main road onto Chardstock Road as the path heads towards the Devon border.
But while the district councils have been increasingly supportive, campaign groups have found the county council less co-operative.
A joint letter to the county council was sent in late-June, signed by representatives of the following groups:
* Bridgwater Area Cycling Campaign (BACC)
* Bruton Safer Cycling and Walking Group
* Cheddar Walking
* Frome’s Missing Links
* Glastonbury Active Travel
* Green Wedmore
* The Somerset Rail to Trail Project
* The Strawberry Line Association
* Taunton Area Cycling Campaign (TACC)
* Wells City Council Cycling Group
Matt Gilson, a member of the Wells group, laid out seven key complaints the groups had about the conduct of the council’s highways team:
* Reluctance to engage: Mr Gilson said highways officers were reluctant to fully engage with campaigners, describing it as “obstruction”. When they did engage, he claimed officers wasted their time by “overloading groups with complex processes, documents and tasks without making a significant commitment to action itself”.
* Local knowledge and effort not being value: Mr Gilson said the council had a “contemptuous attitude” towards local residents’ experience, arguing there had been “very limited progress” on implementing the walking and cycling manifesto which different groups had submitted to officers in 2020.
* A very “conservative” approach to transport policy: Mr Gilson said the council was “stuck in the past” regarding its transport policies, arguing its designs for recent road schemes were “designed for car capacity to the detriment of active travel”.
* Slow to implement schemes: Mr Gilson said that the council was “incredibly slow” to implement active travel schemes to which it had already committed – citing the slow progress on cycle routes in and around Taunton compared to the steady progress made on the Junction 25 upgrade.
* Too “risk-averse”: Mr Gilson said the council was so cautious in committing to active travel schemes that it resulted in proposals becoming “over-complicated and expensive to deliver”, making it less likely that they would ever become a reality.
* Lack of leadership: Mr Gilson did not single out any individual within the council’s senior leadership team, but said there was “an absence of effective and visible leadership” with both strategy and decisions over specific schemes.
* Poor-quality implementation: where schemes were implemented on the ground, they have not been of an ideal quality – a view which Mr Gilson said was “widely felt” among campaigners.
Mr Gilson said: “Although the council has declared a climate emergency, there seems to be little urgency in terms of actions.
“Active travel should be a key strategy for the council in its response to net zero, pollution, traffic congestion, regenerating our towns and making them attractive places to live, work and visit.
“There should be a big shift from the current priority of providing capacity for cars to sustainability and inclusiveness.”
Mike O’Dowd-Jones, the council’s strategic commissioning manager fo highways and transport, has responded to the groups’ comments in writing.
Mr O’Dowd-Jones said the council had recently increased its active travel spending as part of its capital programme and was applying for further funding from the DfT’s new dedicated active travel fund.
He said: “We are at an exciting point where we can start to roll out a new programme of investment, and we are keen for this to be ambitious and effective in achieving a mode shift from private car use to active travel modes.
“We have a joint active travel group which we formed with the district councils during the pandemic to roll out our emergency active travel measures, and we intend to develop this further to support delivery of our wider active travel programme.”
Responding to the groups’ specific concerns, Mr O’Dowd-Jones stated:
* Reluctance to engage: Mr O’Dowd-Jones said there were “finite resources” available for engagement but stressed he and his fellow officers had “done their best”, with more staff being allocated going forward. He added the council relied on applicants submitting “appropriate technical details” as a result of having to determine around 5,000 planning applications each year.
* Local knowledge and experience: Mr O’Dowd-Jones said the council had found TACC and BACC to be “a valuable source of local knowledge” when designing specific transport schemes, and wished to replicate this attitude with other groups, offering to speak directly to any campaigners who felt “undervalued”.
* Approach to transport policy: Mr O’Dowd-Jones said the council was “working hard” to implement new DfT guidance on cycle routes, and was reviewing all its new transport schemes to make sure they were up to scratch.
* Slow pace of implementation: Mr O’Dowd-Jones said it had taken time to implement plans for new schemes in Bridgwater, Taunton and Yeovil due to staff being redeployed during the coronavirus pandemic – but said the council was recruiting new staff to move these schemes along.
* Risk aversion: Mr O’Dowd-Jones said the council was trying to be “proportionate” in its approach to new schemes, but added he welcomed the groups’ challenges and said specific instances would be reviewed.
* Leadership: Mr O’Dowd-Jones said active travel schemes were being openly advocated by many senior figures in the council – including leader David Fothergill, chief executive Pat Flaherty and cabinet member for highways and transport John Woodman.
* Quality of infrastructure: Mr O’Dowd-Jones said the group’s accusations were an unfair “blanket statement”, adding: “We have delivered a large amount of good- quality and functional cycle infrastructure around the county, which is well-used and valued by a large number of cyclists and is similar in nature to that found all over the UK.”
The council added that it had held a “very productive meeting” with the groups promoting a scheme near Dulcote, and that this would move forward over the coming months.
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