MILLIONS of pounds could be invested in town centres 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 for £19.3 million to the Levelling Up Fund on Tuesday, August 2.

The bid is supported by £2.4 million in match funding by the councils, bringing the total value of the potential investment in the area to £21.9 million.

The bid is focused on projects in Highbridge, Cheddar, Shepton Mallet, and the wider districts that could boost the local economy.

The councils believe these would help residents take more pride in their towns and tackle local deprivation issues.

However, Wells MP James Heappey raised his “growing concerns” about parts of the bid with the councils before it was submitted.

The councils said the bid followed advice from the UK Government, which highlighted Mendip and Sedgemoor as priority one areas for investment.

In Highbridge, the funding has been earmarked to deliver regeneration in Market Street and Bank Street, create a new community centre in Trowbridge Close, and improve the cycling route to Burnham-on-Sea. 

Burnham and Highbridge Weekly News: Highbridge & Burnham station. Picture: Google Street ViewHighbridge & Burnham station. Picture: Google Street View

It would also be spent on a new travel hub at the Highbridge & Burnham train station.

In Shepton Mallet, the funding would help create a travel hub with enhanced cycle storage, a better bus interchange, and improved tourist information.

It would deliver public realm and highway infrastructure developments and fund new signage and improved pedestrian crossings.

The funding would be spent improving public spaces in Cheddar Gorge and supporting a new travel hub to encourage and enable sustainable tourism.

Some of the funding would be allocated to extending the Strawberry Line cycle route that currently connects Shepton Mallet and Clevedon.

The bid follows SDC consultations in Highbridge and Cheddar that found 98 per cent of respondents “agreed that investment in those communities was needed”.

A total of 84 per cent of Highbridge respondents “agreed that the projects outlined should be included and in Cheddar, there was broad support for the projects outlined”.

But Mr Heappey, whose Wells constituency includes Highbridge, Cheddar, and Shepton Mallet, has criticised parts of the bid and said it is “unlikely to succeed”.

Burnham and Highbridge Weekly News: James Heappey MP, who represents the Wells constituency and is the armed forces minister. Picture: UK Parliament James Heappey MP, who represents the Wells constituency and is the armed forces minister. Picture: UK Parliament

He raised his concerns with the councils in five meetings held between January and July after he consulted ex-levelling up minister Neil O’Brien.

The Wells MP said: “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 win favour.” 

He also believes the bid should have “prioritised a parking solution” and improvements to Cheddar’s road layout to encourage a rise in tourism “without causing mayhem” on the roads.

Burnham and Highbridge Weekly News: Mr Heappey believes the bid should have “prioritised a parking solution” in Cheddar. Picture: Malc McDonald, Geograph (geograph.org.uk/p/6586630)Mr Heappey believes the bid should have “prioritised a parking solution” in Cheddar. Picture: Malc McDonald, Geograph (geograph.org.uk/p/6586630)

“Increasing tourism in the village is a huge opportunity,” he said.

“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.”

He added: “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.” 

SDC said it is “disappointing” that Mr Heappey has not formally endorsed the bid, which it says seeks investment for parts of his constituency that are “most in need”.

It said it understands the concerns surrounding visitors accessing Cheddar using roads but car-based solutions would not meet the levelling up criteria.

An SDC spokesperson said: “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.”

Burnham and Highbridge Weekly News: Sedgemoor District Council (pictured) and Mendip District Council have submitted a joint funding bid.Sedgemoor District Council (pictured) and Mendip District Council have submitted a joint funding bid.

An MDC spokesperson said: “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.”

The Levelling Up Fund is jointly managed by the Treasury, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and the Department for Transport.

The £4.8 billion fund aims to support town centre and high street regeneration, local transport projects, and cultural and heritage assets.

Decisions on this round of funding are expected in autumn 2022.