An Open Letter
To: Councillor Harvey Siggs
Cabinet Member for Highways and Transport at Somerset County Council
It is good that the County Council is consulting on rights of way; but it needs to act as well.
It is good that the County Council is consulting the public about rights of way, particularly as the Council has recently been granted extra money from the Government to use specifically on roads, cycle and footpaths. You have said the public rights of way network is key to enabling residents and visitors alike to access services and enjoy the beauty of the Somerset countryside. To make that a reality however the County Council needs not only to listen but to act, and experience with the Strawberry Line makes one doubt whether action will ever be forthcoming.
As you know a number of local groups have been asking the County Council to take action for over a decade since they first agreed to develop an off-road route between Wells and Cheddar, linking into the wider Strawberry Line path. Residents have made their support for such a path clear many times; at public meetings, through local surveys and through letters to the press. The only response each time however has been to ask for more information.
Local people have not only expressed their views but have, with the help of the cycling charity Sustrans, undertaken almost all of the action to date. We organised a feasibility study. We found external funding for an environmental survey; and then an extra survey because the Council wanted another one done later in the year; and then a separate tree survey because that was County Council policy. We found funding for the topographical survey they requested; and then won funding to second a County Council officer to do all the design work necessary to back a full planning application.
Before submitting the planning application the County Council asked for a business plan to show how the path could be built and maintained without drawing on Council funds. We were able to hire consultants to research and present such a plan which showed that it could be viable without the Council spending a penny: but only if they were to give planning permission for the path first.
The final impossible demand from the Council was that we should give a cast iron guarantee that all the money had been found before planning permission had been granted. Clearly no funding body would make such a commitment and for that reason alone progress has stalled.
The danger is that because of this experience many in Mendip will see the current consultation not as a guide to action but a substitute for it. To forestall such a reaction it might help if you could confirm that you still support the principle of the Strawberry Line path and indicate how the County Council can contribute to bringing it about. Without some assurance of action those reading your consultation may feel that responding is a waste of their time.