MILLIONS of pounds could be invested in town centers and transport in parts of Somerset if a bid for government funding is successful.
Sedgemoor District Council (SDC) and Mendip District Council (MDC) submitted a joint bid of £19.3million to the Leveling Fund on Tuesday August 2.
The bid is supported by matching funding of £2.4m from the councils, bringing the total value of potential investment in the area to £21.9m.
The bid is focused on projects in Highbridge, Cheddar, Shepton Mallet and wider districts which could boost the local economy.
The councils believe it would help residents take more pride in their towns and address local issues of deprivation.
However, Wells MP James Heappey raised “increasing concerns” about parts of the council bid ahead of its submission.
The councils said the offer followed advice from the UK government, which highlighted Mendip and Sedgemoor as priority areas for investment.
In Highbridge, the funding was used for the regeneration of Market Street and Bank Street, the creation of a new community center at Trowbridge Close and the improvement of the cycle route to Burnham-on-Sea.
It would also be spent on a new travel hub at Highbridge & Burnham station.
In Shepton Mallet, the funding would help create a travel hub with improved bike storage, a better bus interchange and better tourist information.
It would ensure the development of the public realm and the road infrastructure and would finance new signage and improved pedestrian crossings.
The funding would go towards improving public spaces in Cheddar Gorge and supporting a new travel center to encourage and enable sustainable tourism.
Part of the funding would go towards extending the Strawberry Line cycle route which currently links Shepton Mallet and Clevedon.
The offer follows SDC’s consultations in Highbridge and Cheddar which revealed that 98% of respondents “agreed that investment in these communities is needed”.
A total of 84 per cent of respondents in Highbridge “agreed that the projects described should be included and in Cheddar there was broad support for the projects described”.
But Mr Heappey, whose Wells constituency includes Highbridge, Cheddar and Shepton Mallet, criticized parts of the bid and said it was ‘unlikely to succeed’.
He raised his concerns with councils at five meetings held between January and July after consulting former leveling minister Neil O’Brien.
The MP for Wells said: ‘The regeneration of Shepton and Highbridge and a radical change in the tourism offering in Cheddar was the right focus for the bid, and we were all in agreement on that from the start.
“But over the months I have raised with councils my growing concerns that the plans for Highbridge and Shepton will not catalyze the growth of the local economy or create more skilled jobs.
“While the improvement in the appearance of both town centers is extremely significant and long overdue, compared to other towns elsewhere in the country, our presentation to the Leveling Fund was less substantial and it is clearly unlikely may she gain favor.”
He also believes the bid should have “prioritized a parking solution” and improvements to Cheddar’s road layout to encourage increased tourism “without causing chaos” on the roads.
“Increasing tourism in the village is a huge opportunity,” he said.
“Cheddar should be a starting 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 bicycle is clearly ludicrous.
“Local residents are already deeply concerned about how visitors park on residential streets in the village, and erosion from parking on the edges of the gorge is damaging our star attraction.”
He added: ‘The Strawberry Line will be a brilliant addition to the economy, but the vast majority of visitors will be going to Cheddar. It is a reality that we cannot wish for, and I am surprised that the councils did not prioritize it.
“I cannot support an offer that will cause misery for so many of my constituents. Nor can I support something that the minister has already told us is unlikely to succeed.
The SDC said it was “disappointing” that Mr Heappey had not formally endorsed the bid, which it said seeks investment for the parts of its constituency that need it “most”.
He said he understands the concerns around visitors accessing Cheddar by road, but car-based solutions would not meet the upgrade criteria.
An SDC spokesperson said: “We are proud to have brought together this joint offering which has the potential to deliver significant upgrading benefits to communities across Somerset.
“By supporting our local communities, we can create new opportunities for people who live and work in Highbridge and Cheddar, and in the wider district.
“I am grateful to everyone who supported the bid, especially the local residents who engaged so positively in our consultations in Highbridge and Cheddar.”
An MDC spokesperson said: “Working together, the projects proposed in our joint bid provide an opportunity and will have a tremendous positive impact on our communities.
“An important aspect of this bid is the extension and further improvements to the Strawberry Line, a much-used and popular cycle route.
“This will improve the tourist offer and ensure connectivity between the communities of the two districts. These projects will make a real difference in Mendip, Sedgemoor and Somerset.
The Leveling Fund is jointly managed by the Treasury, the Department of Leveling, Housing and Communities and the Department of Transport.
The £4.8bn fund aims to support the regeneration of the town center and high streets, local transport projects and cultural and heritage assets.
Decisions on this funding round are expected in fall 2022.