PLANS for a multi-million pound riverside shops and homes development in Taunton received a major blow after a national firm this week said it would not be opening a store there.

Clothing giant Next had been in talks over opening a unit at Firepool, which has lain derelict for the past ten years following the closure of the livestock market.

Representatives of the company, which has a shop in the town centre, had shown an interest in and attended planning meetings on the proposals.

But in a brief statement yesterday (Wednesday), a Next spokesman said: "We can confirm that Next are no longer interested in this site."

When approached by the County Gazette, Cllr John Williams, Conservative leader of landowner Taunton Deane Borough Council, said he was unaware of Next's decision.

He said: "They haven't communicated that to us as far as I'm aware."

The bombshell announcement follows years of delays, a failed planning application, delays in the completion of the Northern Inner Distributor Road to provide access and Waitrose's withdrawal of interest in opening a supermarket at Firepool.

Outline planning permission was recently granted and the Deane's partner St Modwen is now working on more detailed plans.

The council is battling to attract major players to the site, with ambitions to build shops, flats, offices, leisure facilities and bars and restaurants.

A Deane House spokesman said: "Since the resolution to grant planning consent on March 14 for the mixed use Firepool site, discussions have been continuing with a range of operators in the leisure, hotel, residential and retail fields.

"The identity of those operators remains commercially confidential at this stage."

But LibDem opposition Cllr Habib Farbahi said he fears Firepool will end up as a housing estate.

"It's bad news, but I'm not surprised by Next's decision," said Mr Farbahi.

"The whole pattern of how we shop is changing. What was happening ten years ago isn't happening any more.

"We should have had growth industries in that area, such as research and development, not old industries. We need to look outside the box.

"Firepool will stay there, at best with a second rate hotel paid for by the taxpayer and at worst another site we can't do anything with.

"Firepool is the best site in the South West and we need something really creative there.

"But we're in danger of turning it into a housing estate."

The council is in talks with an international brand to build a hotel with taxpayers' cash and lease it out to the firm, believed to be Hilton.