Burnham-On-Sea and Highbridge’s MP James Heappey has said this week he is “unable to support” a major bid for regeneration funding for the area, adding that the proposals focus too much on “cosmetic improvements.”
A multi-million pound funding bid has been developed jointly by Mendip and Sedgemoor District Councils — but the MP says his input, and advice from the ‘Levelling Up Minister’, was “ignored”.
Mr Heappey said last night (Wednesday) that the bid to the Government’s Levelling Up Fund “should have been an enormous opportunity for Highbridge, Cheddar and Shepton Mallet but instead plans have focussed mostly on cosmetic improvements to the town centres.”
He adds that Cheddar’s bid “hoped to increase tourist footfall by 40 per cent without any improvement to car parking and the village’s already congested roads.”
The Highbridge regeneration plans included improvements to Market Street (pictured below) and Bank Street, improvements at Highbridge Railway station, the creation of a new community centre at Trowbridge Close and improvements to the cycle route from Highbridge to Burnham-On-Sea.
Mr Heappey says: “Regeneration in Shepton and Highbridge, and a step change in the tourism offer at Cheddar, were the right focus for the bid and we were all in agreement on that from the outset.”
“But as the months have gone by, I’ve been raising with the councils my growing concerns that plans for Highbridge and Shepton would not catalyse growth in the local economy or create more skilled jobs.”
“Whilst improving the appearance of the two town centres is hugely important and long overdue, when compared to other towns elsewhere in the country our pitch to the Levelling Up Fund was less substantial and clearly unlikely to win favour.”
Mr Heappey also revealed that before a briefing with council officials four weeks ago he raised his concerns with the Levelling Up Minister, Neil O’Brien MP, to seek his advice on the likelihood of the bid succeeding.
He says that Mr O’Brien was clear this was “unlikely to find favour compared to the more imaginative bids from other towns.”
Mr Heappey says that he subsequently shared this advice with the councils but there were no meaningful changes to the bid offered by the councils.
However, it is on the bid for Cheddar that Mr Heappey is particularly scathing.
He explains: “Increasing tourism in the village is a huge opportunity – Cheddar should be a stepping off point for adventure in the Mendips as well as being a beautiful place to visit in its own right.”
“But the idea that all new visitors to the village will arrive from Bristol, Bath, Weston or Burnham by bus or bike is clearly ridiculous.”
“Local residents are already deeply concerned by the way visitors park on residential streets across the village and the erosion being caused by parking on the verges in the Gorge is damaging our star attraction.”
“This bid should have prioritised a parking solution and improvements to the road layout that would have opened the door for huge growth in visitors without causing mayhem on Cheddar’s roads.”
“The Strawberry Line will be a brilliant addition to the economy, but the vast majority of visitors will drive to Cheddar. That’s a reality we can’t wish away, and I’m surprised the councils haven’t prioritised it.”
“I cannot back a bid which will cause misery for so many of my constituents. Nor can I back something that we’ve already been told by the Minister is unlikely to succeed.”
Mr Heappey adds that he has written to the leader of Sedgemoor District Council to offer his support in developing “a more strategic bid that genuinely drives economic growth in Highbridge, Shepton and Cheddar but in a way that respects the needs of existing residents.”
A spokesperson for Sedgemoor District Council says: “We are proud to have brought together this joint bid which has the potential to deliver significant Levelling Up benefits in communities across Somerset. By supporting our local communities we can create new opportunities for people who live and work in Highbridge and Cheddar, and the wider district. I am grateful to everyone who has supported the bid, particularly local residents who engaged so positively with our consultations in Highbridge and Cheddar.”
A spokesperson for Mendip District Council adds: “By working together, the projects proposed in our joint bid offer opportunity and will have considerable positive impact on our communities. One of the significant areas of this bid is the extension and further improvements to the Strawberry Line, a much used and loved cycle route. This will enhance the tourism offering and provide connectivity between communities across both districts. These projects will make a real difference in Mendip, Sedgemoor, and Somerset.”