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‘It’s unbelievable the difference a path has made’: how volunteers are building a cycle network a yard at a time
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‘It’s unbelievable the difference a path has made’: how volunteers are building a cycle network a yard at a time

In the past two years, multiple sections of a hoped-for 76-mile rural cycling and walking route spanning Somerset have sprouted up around the small town of Shepton Mallet, seemingly every few weeks.

These new routes are popular. One 300-metre section of path in the heart of the town, for example, uses one of Historic Railway Estates’ bridges for the first time for a cycle route (an organisation usually more given to infilling its structures).

The path, with its smooth surface and artwork, ducks under a busy road that was previously terrifying for walkers and cyclists to have to cross. Now a large housing area is safely connected to schools, shops, parks and local businesses. Within a year, digital counters detected 104,000 trips – in a town of fewer than 10,000 people.

Another new cycling and walking route has connected two small villages, Westbury-sub-Mendip and Easton, both with fewer than 800 inhabitants, that were previously linked only by a narrow, fast A-road, with no pavement. There are expected to be 30,000 trips in its first year.

Closeup of a cycle path marker in the pavementView image in fullscreen

The expansions follow a lightbulb moment about how to overcome the hurdles facing cycle paths, and the impact is being strongly felt. “It’s placemaking and community enrichment in a way I don’t think any of us realised it would be,” one of the brains behind the change, the Somerset councillor Ros Wyke says. “It’s unbelievable the difference a single path has made.”

Active travel routes offer one of the highest-return transport infrastructure investments going, delivering on everything from health to rural tourism, access to employment and education, and to the environment. And yet in the UK it can be fiendishly hard to deliver them.

Ros Wyke tried for more than 25 years, including as leader of the former Mendip district council. Cautious council officers denied the paths planning permission. Then, in 2022, they began experimenting with using “permitted development rights” – the separate process that a farmer uses when building a new track through a field. This much more streamlined process still requires application forms and licences for hedgerow removal, water or drain crossings, and to protect newts or bats. However, it removes the need to survey every tree within 50 yards of a path, for example, and other elements of the planning process designed with large out-of-town developments in mind, like topographical surveys. This can easily cut two years off the process and make a path’s success far more likely. Under this model, planning permission needs to be granted only for those sections of path that meet roads, which cuts delivery timescales from decades to weeks.

Once they have been decided on, the paths can then be built by local volunteers, with expert guidance, for far less than it would cost a government organisation. While it can cost £1m per kilometre for a National Highways-delivered cycle route, groups such as the Strawberry Line, using G&C’s expertise, can deliver one for £170,000/km.

However, that is partly because volunteers help to build and maintain them. As well as clearing brambles, and building drains after this year’s incessant rain, and planting thousands of trees, volunteers help in path construction, doing the work machines can’t. Other volunteers rebuild fences, and removed dead tree stumps. It’s a situation very much like the network that oversees the country’s bridle paths. But is it sustainable?

It was also possible, in this case, thanks to the experience of John Grimshaw and Caroline Levett, who have been building bike paths for years and who helped found Sustrans and the National Cycle Network. Now in their 70s and 60s respectively, John and Caroline run their own charity, Greenways and Cycleroutes (G&C), helping local communities bring landowners, funds, councils and planning requirements together. They’ve even obtained their own newt and bat licences over the years.

“We can build a kilometre in six weeks when we get going,” says John.

Caroline adds: “Last September, we did have five routes going at the same time, but that was extraordinary. We’d never had more than one and a half before that.”

John and Caroline use almost a century of combined experience to streamline the whole process.

While elements of what they do are scalable, such as the local volunteers and the use of permitted development rights, their expertise is harder to replicate. The pair also estimate they do two-thirds to three-quarters of their work for nothing – using the wages they don’t claim to seed fund new paths, and even chipping in to cash-strapped council coffers.

One of the trickiest parts of the puzzle is gaining permission from the different landowners and neighbours. Mick Fletcher, who is working to set up the Strawberry Line path, which will, hopefully, one day link Shepton Mallet with the sea at Clevedon, says: “People who see a proposal for a path near them have exaggerated fears about what might happen to them. People worry about [security] and being overlooked, so we have to work quite hard to allay these fears, and to screen people’s homes with trees”.

A sign for cyclists next to a path through a woodView image in fullscreen

“We had to reach agreements with them in different ways and accommodate different needs,” he says. It’s a case, he adds, of “asking them ‘would you be prepared to talk about how we might do it: we want to get from A to B, is there a way to do that without interfering with your farming operations?’”

But the difference the paths can make, volunteers and permit systems willing, is extraordinary, says councillor Wyke. “We’re now the proud owner of four people’s wooden benches, in memorial or because people like the view and it’s their favourite place. The thank you letters I’ve had, saying ‘it’s the first time I’ve been able to walk to the pub to have a drink with friends, or walk the kids to school’.”

  • Laura Laker’s book, Potholes and Pavements: A Bumpy Ride on Britain’s National Cycle Network, is out now, published by Bloomsbury.

Source: theguardian.com