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Council rejects planning application against background of ill-feeling

Sustrans’ ambitious Connect2 project linking Bristol and Nailsea has run into problems over a 70m section at Ashton Court in North Somerset.

The Lottery-funded £2.1m route known Festival Way will offer a walking and cycling path along a corridor stretching from the Cumberland Basin in Bristol through to Millennium Park in Nailsea. It seeks to avoid main roads, creating a largely traffic-free route via the villages of Flax Bourton and Long Ashton.

But a section of the six mile route that falls within the remit of North Somerset Council is proving problematic with the authority’s central area planning committee refusing to approve a planning application for the proposed 70m stretch within the grounds of a stately home.

As we reported last year, most of the route near Ashton Court that was proposed by Bristol City Council has been approved. However, neighbouring North Somerset council felt that development of the route within part of the stately home’s listed landscape was unjustified and consequently rejected it.

The plan involved recessing an existing gate situated in a listed wall and creating a fence on the inside of the wall to allow 24-hour access to the proposed route. But the central area planning committee turned down the application on the grounds that:

“The proposed recessed gate area would be proportionality far too deep for its width and the un-gated and un-piered breach to the east of the relocated gate would appear alien to the historic wall. The new cycle path and associated fencing would reinforce an artificial and modern division through the historic park.

“The benefits from increasing cycle journeys in the area would be significantly reduced if the proposed cycle route fails to link in a safe and convenient manner to the planned cycle route to the south, the route of which has yet to be finalised. The proposed development is therefore premature since the justification for harming the exceptional interest of the heritage assets is not guaranteed at this stage and consequently there are insufficient benefits to out weigh the presumption in favour of conserving this heritage asset.”

There were 130 supporting comments attached to the planning application but they appear to have counted for little in the eyes of North Somerset Council. Sustrans also maintain that it is wrong of the planning committee to consider anything other than the proposal before them and that references to other elements of the route should not have been made.

But there is some additional background to the rejection which, in the words of North Somerset Council’s deputy leader and executive member for strategic planning Elfan Ap Rees, contributed to the planning committee looking at the Connect2 proposal more “more closely” than it otherwise might have done.

According to Councillor Ap Rees, Sustrans and North Somerset Council got off on the wrong foot when the chairman of the steering committee set up to look at the Connect2 project attempted to remove the county’s representative on the basis of some comments that he had made about alternative routing.

Although the chairman was not a Sustrans representative, his actions appear to have been linked to the charity in the eyes of the council as they prevented alternative routes being examined in detail by the committee at an earlier stage in the process.

A second bone of contention is what North Somerset Council apparently consider to be a decision by Sustrans not to provide funding towards a road crossing in reaction to local opposition to its proposed paved pathway through an open space in Nailsea.

“Sustrans has got itself into a bit of a mess locally,” Councillor Ap Rees told road.cc. “These things collectively have not done Sustrans any favours.”

As for the way forward he said: “I have asked our highways officers to look at the alternatives and re-consult locally to get a view on which is the preferred route from a local perspective. We then want to meet with Sustrans and agree that route with them and get things back on track.”

That may be the hope but it seems that both sides, while remaining outwardly cordial, are harbouring a level or resentment and suspicion that could threaten to derail the schedule for delivery of the route by 2013.

In response to Councillor Ap Rees' comments regarding Sustrans, its Regional Director for the South West, Adrian Roper, said:

“I am surprised by Cllr Ap Rees’ comments. North Somerset Council, alongside Bristol City Council, approached Sustrans in 2007 with the aim of getting the Festival Way onto the Connect2 project, which was awarded £50million by the Big Lottery Fund following a public vote.

“The scheme was proposed by both councils to provide a safe, largely off-road, walking and cycling route between Nailsea and Bristol. The route was agreed by all three parties at the time, and a large section of the route is included within North Somerset’s Local Plan. The scheme was awarded £600,000 by Sustrans, and a Memorandum of Understanding signed by North Somerset Council, Bristol City Council and Sustrans based on this agreed route. It is the councils that have the task of delivering the route, with Sustrans' support.

“The public vote from 2007 and the number of North Somerset residents who wrote in support of the recently refused planning application in part of Ashton Court are a reminder of how many local people want and would benefit from this route. In fact, there was only a single objection from a member of the public.

“We understand that Bristol City Council, as applicant, are considering an appeal against the planning application refusal, and we hope in time the proposed route will allow more people to make everyday journeys safely on foot or by bike.”

We’ll keep you updated on this story as it develops, but for the time being it appears that the impasse is as much about a power play between the three principal parties as is about the merits of the actual route.