Lack of action on active travel in Somerset

Photo by Tom Austin on Unsplash

Somerset County Council (SCC) have contacted us over our article on cycle paths in Somerset. They asked us to add three points giving the perspective of the County Highways Department on some of the key issues raised. We are pleased to set out their comments here in the interests of balance and to quote in full the evidence they provided.

“We have a great track record”

The council told us “Somerset County Council has a great track record of attracting investment from outside the County to fund a wide range of significant cycling and road infrastructure projects.” 

We saw no reason to dispute this and were keen to see and publish as much background as possible. We therefore asked that SCC provide details of its track record, and also identify the investment in cycle paths it has made from its own resources in the last five years. We received the following reply:

“Investment in infrastructure comes predominantly from government grants which we always actively pursue, in addition to infrastructure that we secure through new development. The Council’s revenue resource is mainly used to fund services, such as education and social care, rather than infrastructure, in line with most other authorities. However, this year we are funding a new £1.5m cycling infrastructure programme using some of our Public Health budget.”

“We appreciate the work of volunteers”

The council also stated: “We really appreciate the hard work of volunteers on the Strawberry Line proposals and the efforts they have put in so far to get the scheme where it is. This will be a hugely valuable addition to the regional cycling network”.  

We are pleased to put this on the record. Since the volunteers who have contacted us did not feel appreciated, however, we asked what practical expressions of support they may have missed. A council spokesman explained,

“Our leader has been in correspondence with some of the volunteers to thank them for their hard work on this scheme, and senior officers and directors have been working to establish the best way of moving the scheme forward.”

“We have an excellent relationship”

The Council finally stated, “Somerset County Council and Mendip District Council have an excellent relationship when it comes to delivering transport infrastructure schemes and have worked together proactively at a senior level to try to enable this scheme to progress. We have engaged constructively with the applicant and have requested and are awaiting a suitable plan which satisfies some key safety requirements. We will continue to support the promoting of the scheme ensuring that any requirements are reasonable and appropriate; once that’s achieved the scheme can proceed”.

We are happy to record that SCC believe that SCC and Mendip DC have a good relationship and are sure that Mendip would say the same. The matter of contention,  however, was whether the county engaged constructively with the applicant for the scheme we quoted – Greenways and Cycle routes. We therefore asked for details of the engagement of county officers with Greenways in relation to this application over the past 12 months, and received the following reply:

“A planning application was submitted to Mendip DC, the planning authority; they undertook appropriate consultations, and the County Council did not have any concerns about the principles of the application. Planning consent was granted in September 2020, during the pandemic, and our Rights of Way Team were engaged before Christmas to discuss this. At the end of March some concerns were raised with us about some of the practical complexities of delivering the scheme and an initial meeting was held with the applicant to discuss this. Since then directors and senior officers have been in dialogue to establish how to move the scheme forward.”

Concerns in Somerset are county-wide

We shall wait and see whether the publicity given to the holdup at Dulcote will help move that scheme forward. Despite our reminding them, however, SCC does not seem to have grasped that dissatisfaction with its approach to active travel and to engagement with voluntary groups is widespread in Somerset. Dulcote was only one example.  

Path clearance: before and after. Photo courtesy of Laura Sorenson

Laura Sorenson is one of a group of volunteers which has cleared long sections of neglected paths, similarly sees Highways as unappreciative of their efforts and reluctant to communicate. “After weeks of badgering they came out once, were perfectly friendly but did not follow up a single thing they promised, and we never heard from them again.” 

Raised crossings give priority to vulnerable users; but not in Somerset. Image courtesy of Taunton Area Cycling Campaign

Marion Nieuwenhuizen from the Taunton Area Cycling Campaign originates from the Netherlands, where people enjoy good cycling infrastructure. “Here,” she says, “inadequate shared footways are stop-start with too many unnecessary conflict points. It seems that Somerset Highways is stuck way in the past, designing mainly for car capacity.”

Unnecessary and inconvenient ironwork, too common in Somerset designs. Image courtesy of Taunton Area Cycling campaign 

Carleton Lord, representing Bridgwater cyclists, complains about “the excessive use of barriers and ‘sheep pens’” by a risk-averse county council. “On one small section they planned to install four sets of unnecessary chicane barriers, increasing costs and inconveniencing users.”

An active travel alliance

In mid-June, eight organisations representing urban cyclists and those supporting the development of rural multi-user paths across the county met to share their concerns. There was a unanimous view that SCC Highways lacked a serious commitment to active travel, was reluctant to engage with voluntary groups and was so risk-averse that it over-complicated schemes, making them almost impossible to deliver. Its pace of action was universally described as slow.

Bruton Town Councillor James Hood summed up the frustration felt by many. “Ten months ago I and others presented the Somerset Walking and Cycling Manifesto to the lead member and officers”, he told us. “The Manifesto was supported by over 60 parish councils and community groups, and sought reversal of the county council’s prioritisation of the needs of motorists over those of other road users. Sadly, in the intervening months, it seems little has changed”.

Lack of Priority. Cyclists and pedestrians forced to give way to cars from a handful of houses on a route to school. Taunton Area Cycling Campaign

The group are writing to the council asking it to establish and support an active travel forum that brings together all voluntary and statutory bodies concerned with relevant infrastructure. They are also calling for an active travel champion or commissioner to be appointed to drive forward developments. They point out that the council have accepted that there is a climate emergency. Now they need to act with the speed an emergency requires.