On 10 June and 29 June 2021 we published a pair of articles highlighting the lack of engagement by Somerset County Council Highways Department with those seeking to develop rural cycle paths. We turned the spotlight on local ambitions for a short extension to a path near Wells which offered a useful commuter route to a new factory site as well as a link in a longer recreational path. There was no organised opposition to the plans, but the project had stalled hopelessly because of failures to communicate by county council staff.
The response to the article was dramatic. Within days Highways officers had made contact with the engineers designing the proposed path, John Grimshaw and colleagues at Greenways and Cycleroutes. On 14 July there was a site meeting between senior staff from Highways, the Greenways team and representatives from Strawberry Line East – the voluntary group championing the scheme. On 2 September the first earthmovers rolled.
The article was, of course, not the only reason the path is now being built. It resulted from the passionate commitment of local volunteers who hacked through half a mile of dense undergrowth to reveal a feasible route. It depended on the skill of the engineers at Greenways to tackle some awkward gradients on a restricted site, and it had the solid backing of Mendip District Council who delivered most of the funding. It benefitted from co-ordinated action by active travel groups across the county to draw attention to the lack of action in Somerset as we reported in our second article. In the last analysis it also benefitted from the pragmatism of county engineers who recognised that those designing the path knew what they were doing and expedited approval.
Richard Jones, leader of the local volunteer group, however, is convinced it was the involvement of West Country Voices that broke the log jam.
“We were struggling to get any response from the county engineers”, he says, “but the Bylines articles really forced our project up the political agenda. We knew it was that because when we met they were virtually quoting extracts”.
Richard is optimistic that the agreement to move quickly on the Wells path will have built greater trust between the various parties involved.
“Highways were very focused on urban cycleways” he says, “and were simply unaware of the needs and potential of paths in more rural settings. Hopefully that will have changed. If so, we owe a big thank you to West Country Voices.”