A GROUP of business leaders are rallying support in a bid to force a rethink on multi-million pound plans to develop a Taunton wasteland.

More than 300 people signed a petition in 48 hours opposing plans for homes, shops, pubs, restaurants and leisure facilities on the former Firepool livestock market, along with a £16 million, 120-room, council-funded hotel leased to an operator.

They want landowner Taunton Deane Borough Council to scrap the project, which received planning approval in March, a decade after the market closed.

With the retail sector reeling, they instead want the site to be "a social, cultural, sporting and leisure destination".

Possible ideas include a concert and conference venue; a visitor centre; high-tech business start up units; a sporting facility such as a snow dome or skating rink; artist studios; and a trampoline park.

View the petition by clicking here.

Petition spokesman hotelier Kit Chapman said: "Many people are frustrated and fed up that the council has allowed Firepool to remain a wasteland for over ten years.

"It needs a complete rethink.

"It's a huge 14-acre site and really gives Taunton a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something wonderful. But that opportunity is in danger of being lost.

"A council document in 2014 said 'Taunton will think like a city'. But the council is more village hall than city hall."

Mr Chapman, a director at The Castle Hotel, said the planned hotel was "the cart before the horse".

He added: "I've been at the Castle for over 40 years and in that time have seen lots of new hotels come. I'm not afraid of new hotels.

"But we need developments that will stimulate investment and tourist visitors. A new hotel needs to be driven by demand."

He wants to present the petition to the council meeting on July 10 and hopes to attract at least 500 signatures.

Council leader Cllr John Williams and his deputy Cllr Mark Edwards have issued a statement in response to the petition and Mr Chapman's comments.

It says: "It’s always refreshing to get new ideas and feedback from our residents and the council can understand frustrations around the development of the Firepool site.

"But, now with the benefit of planning consent, there are real opportunities available for this crucial and high profile part of Taunton.

"Extensive research has specifically gone into the hotel proposal and it has taken the council time to reach this point, to delay the process now would put at risk a major economic opportunity for Taunton and the wider borough.

"In respect of the hotel, the council followed rigorous procurement procedures to ensure a competitive process and a development that provides a financial return for local taxpayers.

"Taunton is growing and needs to be able to offer a wide range of facilities to meet the business and leisure markets. The proposed site at Firepool is well connected to the town centre, the railway and road networks – and this is why it generated such strong interest from potential operators.

"Taunton Deane Borough Council is taking a much more commercial and business-like approach to its operations as it agreed at a recent full council so that it can generate income in the face of public funding cuts and so support the local economy and the wider community.

"Low-cost starter business units are being proposed at Great Western House, next to Taunton Railway Station, as part of the YMCA’s proposals and we are actively exploring any opportunities to further develop start up business space and high value employment are both areas.

"Substantial employment space on the Firepool site was approved through the planning consent, and the council has granted approval for Nexus 25, a high quality and high tech business park to attract investors.

"We share everyone’s aspirations for our county town hence the investments we are making in quality developments.

"But we are also very aware of the changing opportunities that exist and will reflect on the market in which we have to operate and the projected changes that will, inevitably, come.

"We do not believe that snow domes or ice rinks are the types of development that would be sustainable and have a long-term, financially viable future.

"Whatever is developed has to realistic and deliverable. If clear, costed opportunities are available we would be really delighted to hear from would-be investors who can make the necessary investment to deliver a viable and financially sound development.

"We are already working closely with the Brewhouse to develop a sustainable future for arts and culture in our area and it is here we need to focus our efforts to make sure we succeed and are not deflected from these aims.

"Local authorities simply do not have the money to build and maintain the sort of facilities suggested in the petition - these would need investment from the private sector. If this came forward, it would certainly be considered - we are open to discussions."