POLITICIANS from across Somerset have expressed their dismay and disappointment after three out of four bids to central government failed to attract any funding.

Somerset’s four district councils submitted four bids to the second round of the government’s levelling up fund in July 2022, in an attempt to secure up to £80 million for regeneration projects across the county.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) confirmed on Thursday morning (January 19) that one of these bids had been successful – with Bridgwater and Minehead sharing £19.7m for new health and social care training facilities.

But none of the other three bids attracted a single penny from the government, leaving towns and villages across Somerset having to find other means to revive their fortunes.

Somerset County Gazette: A bid to regenerate Cheddar, Highbridge and Shepton Mallet was unsuccessful.A bid to regenerate Cheddar, Highbridge and Shepton Mallet was unsuccessful. (Image: Sedgemoor District Council)

How were the bids decided?

The levelling up fund bids were submitted on the basis of parliamentary constituency boundaries, meaning district councils had to co-operate and submit joint bids where appropriate.

The successful bid covers the constituency of Bridgwater and West Somerset, represented by Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger.

The three other bids submitted covered the following constituencies:

Somerton and Frome: the creation of co-working space in Wincanton and refurbishing the Frome enterprise centre

Taunton Deane: regenerating Tonedale Mill and Tone Works in Wellington, as well as enhancing nearby green space

Wells: public realm improvements in Cheddar, Highbridge and Shepton Mallet, including active travel schemes in all three areas

No bid was submitted for the Yeovil constituency, in light of South Somerset District Council’s own regeneration efforts in Yeovil and Chard – the former of which had previously received £9.75m from the government’s future high streets fund.

After the bids were submitted, they were extensively scrutinised and graded by DLUHC officials and ministers, with levelling up secretary Michael Gove MP having the final say.

Somerset County Gazette: A bid to transform the former Bridgwater Hospital building has been approved - but other parts of Somerset have missed out on funding.A bid to transform the former Bridgwater Hospital building has been approved - but other parts of Somerset have missed out on funding. (Image: Hill Reading Architects)

The reaction in Somerton and Frome

The Somerton and Frome bid was submitted jointly by Mendip District Council and South Somerset District Council.

The funding would have seen Frome Enterprise Centre on Manor Road refurbished and enhanced, as well as co-working and cultural events space being provided near Wincanton library.

Councillor Sarah Dyke, who chairs the Wincanton regeneration board – and is also the Liberal Democrats’ parliamentary candidate for the constituency – said the government had “ignored the pleas of the local community” and was “taking families for granted”.

She added: “Wincanton is of huge strategic importance to the south wast of the county and I, alongside my colleagues, am committed to regenerating our communities and town centres.

“As such I will continue to stand up for the economic and social well-being of Wincanton.

“The levelling up fund bid would have provided funding for 100 square metres of co-working and 100 square metres of museum and event space in Wincanton town centre.

“The enterprise, innovation, business collaboration opportunities, plus footfall
generated, would have also positively impacted the high street and

“Together this would have helped to rejuvenate Wincanton bringing
vitality and viability to the town centre, businesses and community.”

Somerset County Gazette: Mendip District Council leader Ros Wyke says the “schemes would have been truly transformative”.Mendip District Council leader Ros Wyke says the “schemes would have been truly transformative”. (Image: Mendip District Council)

The decision comes mere days after Ms Dyke and her fellow district councillors voted to “pause” the council’s own regeneration efforts in Wincanton, meaning any further improvements in the town centre will not be implemented until at least 2024.

Mendip leader Ros Wyke added: “This was a bid for levelling up – which is so needed for Somerset.

“We applied for funding, in good faith, because we are a priority area, and are formally recognised by DLUHC as such.

“As a lower wage economy, these schemes would have been truly transformative. They would have supported our infrastructure, businesses and our communities.

“The lives of people will have been improved. That is why this news is so frustrating and very disappointing.”

Somerset County Gazette: Inside the Toneworks site in Wellington.Inside the Toneworks site in Wellington. (Image: Somerset West and Taunton Council)

The reaction in Taunton Deane

The Taunton Deane bid was focused around restoring Tonedale Mill and Tone Works in Wellington, preserving their unique heritage assets and bringing the buildings back into use for the local community and businesses.

Somerset West and Taunton Council has already received more than £900,000 in three tranches from Historic England to decontaminate and undertake repairs on the Tone Works site, which it has owned since 2020.

This is the second time that a bid regarding the site has failed, with Somerset West and Taunton Council also being refused funding in the first round of the levelling up fund in 2021.

Councillor Mike Rigby, portfolio holder for economic development, planning and transportation, said: “We are disappointed to hear that our ‘Vision for Tonedale’ levelling up bid was unsuccessful.

“The team and a significant group of community, heritage and regional stakeholders invested a great deal of time and effort in putting together a really strong bid.

“We will continue to work with all parties to find a way forward for this nationally significant site in order to save and restore it for the future of the town and the residents of Somerset.”

Somerset County Gazette: Rebecca Pow says she will continue to press the government to support regeneration in Taunton Deane.Rebecca Pow says she will continue to press the government to support regeneration in Taunton Deane. (Image: Houses of Parliament)

Local MP Rebecca Pow – who has represented Taunton Deane since 2015 – said she would continue to press the government to support regeneration in her corner of Somerset.

She said: “It is obviously disappointing that our application to the levelling up fund for Tonedale was unsuccessful this time.

“This ambitious plan for Tonedale would restore and save a nationally important heritage site and a much-loved historic landmark.

“I know that the government is fully committed to levelling up all parts of the country, including the south west.

“There will be a further round of funding and I will continue to work on making the case in order to secure this much needed investment in Tonedale.”

The reaction in Wells

The Wells bid, a joint effort between Mendip and Sedgemoor District Councils, would have supported more than 20 town centre regeneration, local transport, and cultural and heritage projects within the three settlements identified.

These would have included new cycle routes to Apex Park in Highbridge and revamping the area around the former Cox’s Mill Hotel in Cheddar.

Sedgemoor deputy leader Gill Slocombe, who also chairs the Highbridge and Cheddar regeneration working groups, said: “It is extremely disappointing that the joint levelling up fund bid for the Wells constituency was not successful.

“The focus for Highbridge and Cheddar will now be on moving forward to look at future opportunities to secure funding including a possible future bid for levelling up funds, in order to deliver on the exciting projects and opportunities identified through the joint working and public consultation.

“We will also work with local developers, partners and other investors to ensure that new development supports the wider place making ambitions set out in the regeneration strategy.

“This is certainly not the end but very much the beginning of the regeneration
process for that will be taken forward by officers and members of the new
Somerset Council.”

Somerset County Gazette: James Heappey has described the joint bid for Highbridge, Cheddar and Shepton Mallet as “lacklustre”.James Heappey has described the joint bid for Highbridge, Cheddar and Shepton Mallet as “lacklustre”. (Image: Glastonbury Town Deal)

Wells MP James Heappey – who has represented the seat since 2015 – had criticised the bid as “unimaginative” in 2022, and said he was not surprised the government had turned it down.

He said: “I’m not surprised that the lacklustre bid submitted has failed to find favour.

“I was warned by the minister before bids closed that the proposed series of minor public realm improvements in Highbridge, Cheddar and Shepton Mallet would compete poorly with the more strategic – and ambitious – proposals being made by other parts of the country.

“I passed these warnings on to council officials along with my frustration that I’d been saying the same in meetings with the councils over many months beforehand.

“The one silver lining in this sorry tale is that there is to be another round of levelling up fund grants.

“I look forward to working with the new Somerset Council to make sure that, this time, we come up with something that will genuinely move the dial for our local economy, provides value for money for the taxpayer, and allows our towns to meaningfully regenerate.”

What happens next?

There will be a third round of bids to the levelling up fund, with applications expected to open in the spring or summer of this year.

A decision on whether to submit any further bid will lie with the new unitary Somerset Council, which will officially replace Somerset County Council and the four district councils on April 1.