Gill Furniss (Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered funding for the Upper Don Trail.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Cummins. I am delighted to have secured the debate to sing the praises of the Upper Don Trail. A trust of volunteers has worked so hard to bring out the best of that natural corridor through the north of Sheffield.
The Upper Don Trail is a natural trail that runs six miles along the route of the River Don from the city centre out to Stocksbridge. It takes in a combination of modern developments, historic woodland and industrial sites along its passage. In my constituency, the trail passes many notable sites, such as Hillsborough College, the Mondelez sweet factory, the Fletchers bakery, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and the Béres factory, home to the world-famous pork sandwich shop, much loved by the people of Sheffield. In places, the route meets national cycle network route 627 of the Trans Pennine Trail.
To follow the route is to follow Sheffield’s industrial past—former steelworks and small manufacturing factories run alongside much of the route—and the story of Sheffield’s ongoing redevelopment and future potential, as many former industrial sites are going through the process of development. Currently, cycling infrastructure from the city centre to the Peak district through Hillsborough, Stocksbridge and Oughtibridge is a mixed bag. The trust’s ambition is to raise the standard across the trail to ensure that it is accessible, flat and off road, and follows the course of the River Don.
In many places along the trail, that ambition has worked well. Many developers and councillors have ensured that where sites are developed, the trail is included in the scheme. The trust, through hard work, has completed improvement works on 8 km of the trail, and has secured funding for a further 9.3 km. Only 2.5 km of the trail still requires a funding proposal. Although Sheffield City Council and Barnsley Council are both incredibly supportive of the scheme, their hands are tied by funding limitations and Government requirements for active travel schemes.
The signs of development can be seen as the route leaves Stocksbridge and heads towards the city centre. Indeed, just outside my constituency, the route through Beeley Wood is paved, opening a safe and popular route to walkers and cyclists away from the busy Middlewood Road North. The trail then runs along roads for a stretch before re-joining historic woodland at the Herries Road railway viaduct and Wardsend cemetery, a resting place for fallen soldiers from the first and second world wars. Despite losing its Commonwealth War Graves Commission status, the cemetery is maintained by a team of passionate volunteers who work tirelessly to ensure that the peace and natural charm are as open to as many people as possible.
As the trail enters my constituency, the disconnect becomes apparent, with users of the route having to walk alongside busy roads for a long period, and cyclists left with little choice but to continue along the busy dual carriageway into the city centre. I was pleased therefore to hear of investment by Sustrans, matched by Sheffield City Council, to construct a fully accessible route in my constituency between Herries Road and Wardsend cemetery. However, I understand that that exciting project has been put on hold, owing to engineering difficulties.
The trust remains committed to enhancing that portion of the trail. I was pleased to join them and other local groups for a work day in September to improve the existing footpath. The trust and many residents were disappointed when the planning committee decided not to include an active travel scheme to connect the trail by improving the existing on-road cycle route, but as a former councillor I know that planning committees must vote with the legislation. Therefore, I encourage the Minister to liaise with the Minister for Housing to ensure that planning officers and committees have more scope to ensure that active travel requirements are a condition of approving large developments.
The Upper Don Trail Trust’s emphasis on active travel and outdoor leisure activities is clear to see. The trail allows for a vast range of activities, ranging from rambling to rock climbing and cycling to kayaking. The trust works closely with local councils and other organisations to improve the trail’s accessibility and prominence. Sheffield’s seven hills and busy city roads may naturally put many people off cycling. After the Tour de France came to Sheffield, many local people took up cycling. The Upper Don Trail is benefitted by its mostly flat route, but the disconnected portions of the trail mean that it cannot yet claim to be a completely off-road network.
Active travel delivers immense benefits in a whole range of ways. The trust’s ambition is for people to use the trail on their daily commute as much as they would for leisure. Giving people the opportunity to travel to work, school or college in a more active way has been proven to do wonders for their physical and mental wellbeing. The NHS recommends that adults complete 150 minutes of physical activity a week. With active travel, that can be achieved through a 15-minute commute each way, five days a week.
The trust has identified that many are eager to cycle on their commute, but find the prospect of mixing with cars on busy roads daunting. That is reflected across the country, with research showing that 62% of adults feel that it is too dangerous for them to cycle on the roads near them. The Upper Don Trail Trust’s plans would allow cyclists in Sheffield to commute through tranquil scenery, surrounded by woodland, rather than through loud and busy junctions.
As we all know, active travel is a key tool in our fight against climate change. By encouraging people to commute via carbon-free methods wherever possible, we can help to care for our planet at the same time as improving air quality in the local area. Air quality is an ongoing issue in Sheffield, as it is in many towns and cities across the UK. Along with most other cities in England, Sheffield has reported illegal levels of harmful nitrogen dioxide in some areas. Those toxic fumes can cause respiratory problems, including asthma, and damage the respiratory tract. Long-term exposure has also been linked to chronic lung disease. There is therefore a strong public health argument for schemes such as the trust’s, which allow people to run, walk and cycle in woodland away from traffic. That would also help to improve the air quality in our urban city centres by encouraging more people to switch to carbon-free travel on their commutes, thereby reducing cars on the road.
The trust also does excellent work to ensure that activities on the trail are accessible to everyone. For example, the trust’s ambition is to have more accessible footpaths leading down to the Don river. That would provide better access to the river for wheelchair users and people with other disabilities, so that they can take part in activities on the river, such as canoeing.
An army of local volunteers works tirelessly to keep the trail going. That includes Friends of the Porter Valley, a brilliant group who conserve the Porter and Mayfield valleys, a short distance away from the Upper Don Trail. Volunteers from the group often come over to help to renovate and maintain the trail. I place on the record my thanks for their invaluable work.
The reality is that the trust’s ambitious plans need the proper funding to unlock the true potential of the Upper Don Trail. Fundraising often forms the bedrock for funding projects such as this. For example, the Friends of the Porter Valley managed to raise more than a quarter of a million pounds to make improvements to the mill pond at Forge Dam. Sadly, however, many parts of my constituency close to the Upper Don Trail have high levels of poverty and deprivation. Hence, it is difficult for the trust to fundraise enough money in those areas to fulfil its vision.
That problem risks creating a postcode lottery for the enjoyment of nature. Everyone, regardless of background, should have the right to access the natural woodland close to them. However, disparities between different areas mean that the less affluent could be left behind. If the Minister is serious about levelling up, that stark inequality must be addressed through Government funding.
Unfortunately, national funding has not been readily forthcoming for the trust. A focus on on-road cycle routes by the Department for Transport means that off-road routes, such as the Upper Don Trail, have struggled to find funding. However, it is eminently clear that the Upper Don Trail is so much more than just a cycle path: it is a way to preserve the beautiful woodland scenery in South Yorkshire, to be enjoyed by people from different backgrounds; and it provides opportunities for fishing, swimming, running, climbing, horse riding, improvement of mental wellbeing and enjoyment of nature. These trails often become much-loved community resources that inspire a huge amount of local support for maintenance, litter picking, organised walks and runs. It would be impossible to quantify the immense societal value of the trail, and I am in no doubt that investment into it would be money well spent.
I urge the Minister to look at the support that her Department can offer to give this project a boost. The mission of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as set out on its website, is to
“restore and enhance the environment for the next generation, leaving it in a better state than we found it.”
If there is one project where the Minister can make good on those words, it is the Upper Don Trail.