PROMINENT Somerset politicians have vowed to keep fighting for funding to reconnect a growing coastal town to its neighbouring villages.

The B3191 Cleeve Hill, which runs from Watchet to Blue Anchor, was closed by Somerset County Council in mid-January due to fears over coastal erosion.

The new unitary Somerset Council stated in March that the road would be closed for “years rather than months”, with estimates for re-routing the road inland ranging from £30m to £60m.

Since then, the new council has provided thousands of pounds to local councillors to lessen the impact of the closure, making changes to the town centre and its road network to encourage more visitors and support local businesses through the Watchet Task Force.

The council and the town’s MP have now pledged to keep fighting for government funding for a new road link which would reconnect Watchet to the neighbouring villages and provide an alternative route to Minehead in the event of disruption on the A39.

Watchet currently falls within the Bridgwater and West Somerset constituency, which has been represented by Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainger since 2010.

Following a meeting held in mid-November, Mr Liddell-Grainger said any attempt to restore a road into Watchet would continue to receive his fullest support, and he had already been in touch with ministers about the situation.

Somerset County Gazette: A View of Watchet, looking towards Cleeve Hill.A View of Watchet, looking towards Cleeve Hill. (Image: Somerset Council)

He said: “I think we have to be realistic and accept that simply going to the government with a begging bowl is not going to resolve the problem, which is why it is eminently sensible to proceed this way.

“But what must be stressed at every stage is that this is not about obtaining funding for some desirable or cosmetic road scheme.

“It is about restoring a vital transport link whose loss has had a clear and provable negative economic impact on Watchet’s economy – a situation which will pertain to the town’s continuing detriment until a new road is built.”

At the next general election, Watchet will become part of the new Tiverton and Minehead constituency which straddles Devon and Somerset – with Mr Liddell-Grainger already in place as the Conservatives’ candidate for the new seat.

Somerset Council leader Bill Revans – whose Liberal Democrat administration has been in place since the local elections in May 2022 – welcomed the cross-party support for a new road link.

He said: “We’re grateful for the support of the local MP in continuing to give this matter the prominence it deserves.

“Specialist engineering surveys make it clear the road can never reopen – all we can do is ensure the closure remains in place for the safety of the public.

“We fully agree that simply going cap-in-hand to the government is not going to provide us with the £30m or more we need to build an entirely new road.

“The current financial picture for this council is extremely challenging. We have to be realistic and work with the situation as we find it.

“This is why we have provided both financial and practical support to the Watchet Task Force to help promote the town and boost its economy, as well as providing road safety and signage measures for both Watchet and the surrounding communities like Old Cleeve, Washford and Carhampton.”

Somerset County Gazette: An aerial image of the closed B3191 Cleeve Hill.An aerial image of the closed B3191 Cleeve Hill. (Image: Somerset Council)

The £30,000 provided to the task force in August was intended to support social media promotion, advertising and an events programme in the town – and part of it will fund a “long-term review of the design of the town to explore the potential for future improvements”.

New permanent signage has been installed across the town to provide information about accessing communities, including improved and updated brown signs for the Blue Anchor area.

Two particular streets within Watchet are being altered, with the car park entrance on Swain Street being realigned to “improve traffic flow” and the road at the entrance to the town being realigned to direct traffic down Harbour Road rather than Swain Street.

Work will also be undertaken to create a new permanent coastal path route to and from Watchet, with existing walking and cycling routes being enhanced – such as the Mineral Line, which connects the town to the neighbouring village of Washford.

Mr Revans added: “We are not ruling out a funding bid for a new road should a suitable pot of government money become available, and we of course understand the intense interest locally in seeking potential avenues.

“The work we are doing with businesses in the town to understand the economic impact will support any future business case for a bid, and we will continue to have an open dialogue with government on potential funding streams when they become available.”

Watchet could be subject to significant housing growth in the coming years, with the town being one of the few parts of Somerset not stymied by the phosphates crisis.

On top of 250 homes currently being constructed at the Liddymore Park site at the town’s southern edge, three other major development sites could soon come forward:

  • The former Wansborough paper mill site off the B3191 Brendon Road (up to 280 homes)
  • The Parsonage Farm site immediately to the south (230 homes and commercial space)
  • The land either side of Normandy Avenue (139 homes)

With such a large number of homes expected in a short space of time – on top of new homes in the neighbouring village of Williton – securing decent transport infrastructure remains a high local priority.

Watchet town councillor Sean Terrett, chairman of the Watchet Task Force, said: “We would like to thank Ian Liddell-Grainger MP, Bill Revans and the Somerset Council team for their attendance and their continued commitment to addressing and resolving this vital issue.

“We look forward to a continuing dialogue to promote and support the town as it develops its future narrative and would like to thank the community for its patience and participation.”

A report published by WSP in late-July 2020 identified a number of possible schemes for protecting the B3191 in both Watchet and Blue Anchor.

A total of six schemes were proposed for Watchet – ranging from stabilising the existing cliffs (which was estimated at the time to cost £14.48M) to a new bypass through the former paper mill site (up to £71.7M) and even a new tidal lagoon to surround the town’s harbour (upwards of £1bn).

The council’s preferred option for Watchet remains to move the B3191 inland at Cleeve Hill and reconnect with the existing route further along the route towards Blue Anchor.

The Cleeve Hill Development Group put forward plans to partially realign the road in this matter as part of a development of 136 new homes – but these have been refused by councillors on two separate occasions.

The Environment Agency’s Wessex flood and coastal committee previously committed £1.5m towards coastal defence works in the Watchet area – funding which remains available.

But while the EA has confirmed there are no time restrictions on spending this funding, Somerset Council has stated that it is ring-fenced to work on protecting the coast and therefore could not go directly towards a new road.

A spokesman said: “There is £1m of flood defence grant in aid and £500,000 of local levy funding for Cleeve Hill.

“Our understanding is that the money is for coastal works, such as cliff reinforcement or strengthening, and couldn’t be diverted towards an alternative road further inland.

“In any case, this would represent a fraction of the money required.”