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Cycle path plans between Carmarthen and Llandeilo take major step forward

Schoolchildren at a completed section at the western end of the Towy Valley cycle path, pictured in 2019 (Pic: Carmarthenshire Council)

PLANS hatched more than a decade ago for a cycle path between Carmarthen and Llandeilo have taken a major step forward after Welsh ministers confirmed a controversial compulsory purchase order (CPO) for land along the route.

The order had been made in April last year by Carmarthenshire Council, which wants to build the path, while negotiations with affected landowners continued.

There were seven objections, although two of them were subsequently withdrawn, and a public inquiry was held. Richard Duggan, the Welsh Government-appointed planning inspector chairing the inquiry, has concluded that the CPO was justified although the disruption that would be caused to agricultural holdings was, he said, “regrettable”.

CPOs are considered a last resort to acquire land for projects, and to be successful must demonstrate a compelling public interest. Mr Duggan had to consider, among other things, whether the Towy Valley cycle path would promote economic, social and environmental well-being in the area, and whether the council had enough money to build the cycle path within a reasonable time scale.

His decision report said: “The project has sought to reduce the impact of the shared-use route on the management of individual farms and holdings insofar as is justifiable and practicable. Compensation for any losses would be considered.

“I conclude that the extent of disruption to the management of agricultural holdings along the shared-use route is regrettable and weighs against the justification for the project. However, this must be balanced against, and considered in the context of, the significant benefits of facilitating such an important project for the county.”

It said the public benefits accruing from the project were substantial enough to outweigh the disadvantages.

The council commissioned engineering specialists in 2013 to identity options for a shared-use path between Carmarthen and Ffairfach, just south of Llandeilo. Nine options were considered, with the preferred route running along the former railway line between Whitemill – some four miles east of Carmarthen – and Ffairfach. Negotiations with landowners, said the inspector’s report, began at a public event in 2015.

The council completed a 230m section by a car park in Whitemill in 2018 and a 760m section the following year between Whitemill to Abergwili, on the outskirts of Carmarthen. The longest section still to be built and the subject of the CPO is the stretch between Whitemill and Ffairfach.

Objectors were worried about their land being split by the path, the potential for trespass and vandalism, and the impact of flooding to the path.

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Flooding is expected at times on the eastern section of the path, and specialists commissioned by the council estimated that this could lead to it closing for eight days per year on average.

Mr Duggan’s report said the owners of 29 out of the 32 separate landholdings were known, and that four freehold interests had been acquired, with terms agreed for another eight. There were “active negotiations”, he said, for the remaining 16. With the CPO now confirmed, cases where negotiations can’t be reached would be referred to a tribunal which settles legal disputes or to arbitration.

Referring to the impact on landowners, Mr Duggan said: “The project has sought to reduce the impact of the shared-use route on the management of individual farms and holdings insofar as is justifiable and practicable.”

Looking at the potential benefits, Mr Duggan considered evidence from the council which projected a £4.4 million annual tourism boost supporting more than 80 jobs. This was on top of 279 direct and indirect construction jobs.

He said pupils of schools along the route would benefit from the cycle path, and that sickness absence would reduce among workers who used it.

On the finance side, the council has been awarded £16.7 million Levelling Up Fund money from the UK Government but it must be spent by the end of March next year. The path has been split into 10 construction sections to enable multiple contractors on site at the same time, and planning permission is in place.

Mr Duggan’s report said the council has spent £2.4 million on the path thus far and also allocated £1.8 million as Levelling Up match funding. The hearing was told that any extra expenditure would be underwritten by the council via a £3.3 million pot of reserves, although this was “not regarded as an upper funding limit” in case costs increased further.

Carmarthen to Llandeilo is 16 miles on the A40. The Towy Valley cycle path route between Abergwili and Ffairfach is 13 miles. The final section to Llandeilo is very short – and cyclists would be able to pedal into the town next to a new Llandeilo road bypass that has been proposed by the Welsh Government.

One of the objectors, smallholder Robert Moore, said last June that land owned by family members had been acquired twice before via CPO.  Mr Moore said he had been offered £15,000 for the use of the strips of land for the Towy Valley path, and that although he did not wish to sell he had entered negotiations with the council because he was worried about the potential loss of water supply, a shelter, and trees.

He claimed the £15,000 offer hadn’t changed despite land values rising since it was put forward, but said the issue wasn’t about money.

“It’s the principle,” he said. “We’re not rich, and I’m not flush with a massive pension. But I’m quite happy. The land pays the bills. We’ve got enough to live on. But I want to be left alone to make a living.”  Mr Moore also disputed the economic benefits advanced by the council and, having once saved someone who was struggling while swimming in the River Towy, was concerned that the cycle path might lead to more such incidents.

The Towy Valley path was briefly discussed at a council scrutiny committee meeting on June 6, when former council leader Kevin Madge claimed that some landowners were “holding the council to ransom”.

Cllr Madge, who chairs the place, sustainability and climate change scrutiny committee, said he’d also heard reports that some of the landowners didn’t live in Wales let alone Carmarthenshire.

The Labour councillor asked the Plaid Cymru-Independent administration to provide the total cost of land acquisitions. Cllr Edward Thomas, cabinet member for transport, waste and infrastructure services, said a report about the project would be brought before cabinet shortly.

Simon Charles, the council’s senior manager of transport policy and infrastructure, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “We are looking forward to realising this exciting, long-awaited project, and welcoming visitors from all over the country to enjoy the beautiful Tywi Valley and all that Carmarthenshire has to offer.”

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