MORE than £10m of public money may have already been wasted on the Firepool regeneration, it has been claimed – including £50,000 on studying whether John Lewis should come to the site.

Councillor Ian Morrell made this allegation at a special meeting of Taunton Deane Borough Council held on Wednesday evening (November 14) to discuss a way forward for the much-delayed project.

Council leader John Williams survived opposition calls for him to resign in a meeting characterised by walk-outs and frustration on the part of both members of the public and elected councillors.

The council has agreed to look into a range of different options for the site, including a multi-use conference convention venue and a marine innovation centre.

A new cross-party group will be set up to steer the project following criticism of the lack of transparency with which the project had been handled thus far.

At Somerset County Cricket Club, members of the public expressed their anger at the delays and put forward their own suggestions for how the site could be brought back into use.

Kit Chapman said the site should house a visitor centre to promote Taunton as a gateway to the Exmoor National Park, the Quantock Hills and the Brendon Hills.

He said: “With Firepool, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something fantastic for Taunton. Now is the moment for all of you to unite, to put away your squabbles and look to your future.

“I urge you to look more widely than Taunton itself – look to its hinterland, and the assets that surround it.”

Ray Tully described the site as a “monstrosity”, criticising the amount of time that had been spent on the regeneration to date.

He said: “Gloucester City Council has just opened a new bus station – two years, from start to finish. We can’t even build a shop in that time.

“Who’s running this town? How much revenue have we lost because this bomb site hasn’t been used?” 

Councillor John Hunt (who represents part of Taunton on Somerset County Council), said putting more retail on the site would only harm the high street.

He added: “Without question, the vast majority would like to see something that not only attracts local residents but brings in people from outside.

“The obvious solution is a multi-purpose stadium. I urge the council to embrace this view and make this happen.

“I believe if we can get Firepool right and build a superb development that people want to come to our county town and see, then maybe, just maybe, we can make Taunton great again.”

Here is a timeline, as presented by council officers, of the Firepool saga:

2004: the council publishes the Taunton Vision document, written by an all-party commission, laying out plans for multiple sites across the town. At the same time, the Lyons Report (commissioned by central government) recommends large-scale relocation of government departments from London to different areas, including the West Country

Early-2008: The Taunton Town Centre Area Action Plan is published, which “enshrined” the idea of large-scale office space for the site, in line with the Lyons Report’s recommendations

January 2008: Taunton’s cattle market closes on “grounds of animal welfare”

2008-2010: the global recession hits the UK, with officers concluding that “all bets were off in terms of previous assumptions”

2009: St Modwen is appointed by the council as its chosen developer for the site

2010-present: the council develops the land at the former East Goods Yard near Taunton railway station

2012: Viridor UK’s new headquarters is delivered in the south-eastern corner of the Firepool site. This site was developed first due to the poor road access to the remainder of the site

2013-2014: The council’s Taunton Rethink document is published. This was “not intended to abandon the council’s philosophy, but to take a fresh look at market conditions and see what was deliverable“. The document concluded that the large-scale relocation of central government departments was “not realistic” any longer

2016-2017: the council continues to acquire key plots within the site. Some elements of the Firepool site remain in third-party possession

2016: the Water’s Edge housing development of 49 dwellings is delivered near the Viridor HQ. At the same time, outline plans for the wider site are rejected by the council’s planning committee on the grounds of poor design

2017: Trenchard Way – formerly the Northern Inner Distributor Road – opens, enabling improved access to the site. Taunton is also awarded garden town status by the government

March 2018: Outline planning permission for developing the site is granted to St Modwen

September 2018: St Modwen and the council end their partnership. Around the time approval is given for the regeneration of the Coal Orchard site and the improvements to Taunton station

Councillor Simon Coles, leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition group, had called on Mr Williams and Mark Edwards (portfolio holder for economic development) to resign in light of St Modwen pulling out of the project.

He described the Firepool saga as “a slow-moving trainwreck”, arguing the council’s Project Taunton work “had alienated developers”, and called for cross-party working to fix the problem.

He added: “The public deserve to know how much this debacle of dereliction has cost. They need to know how much the partnership with St Modwen has cost.”

Councillor Ian Morrell claimed that the council had spent £10M on consultants for Project Taunton, as well as £50,000 on a report into whether John Lewis should come to the Firepool site or elsewhere in the town centre.

He went on to say: “We do need to all now work together cross-party – but that does need to start with a clear, transparent flow of information.

“We need to be careful how much more public money we spend.

“My concern is that delays will occur yet again – and we have fallen behind the curve time and time again because we have not been ahead of the market.”

Rather than fall on his sword, Mr Williams called for a new cross-party group to be created to steer the project forward.

He said achieving outline consent for the site was “no mean feat” and would give the council the flexibility to explore multiple different uses.

 Mr Williams proposed the following actions:

Further “market assessment and engagement” will be carried out for non-residential uses of the site

A report will come to a future full council meeting to set out “what resources and funds are required to manage the process and achieve delivery”

Once the course of action has been agreed, it will be overseen by a cross-party steering group to “allow clarity of approach” and decide how different plots of land within the Firepool site will be used

Specific work will be commissioned on the prospect of a multi-use convention venue, with part of the site being occupied by a marine innovation centre. This report would take into account the site’s impact on the Brewhouse Theatre and the potential for a new cinema

A professional project team would be commissioned to deliver the agreed proposals

A delivery plan for each stage of the Firepool regeneration would be established

Mr Edwards, who had championed the idea of a multi-use venue on social media, said:”Some of the components which exist already [in the outline planning permission] could still be developed – the cafe, the restaurants, the cinema, definitely the boulevard.

“This is one significant part of a much bigger puzzle.”

James Barrah, the council’s director of housing and communities, said that his officers would have “the flexibility and agility to respond to market changes” and approach the site on a plot-specific basis, rather than one plan for the entire area.

 Councillor Federica Smith-Roberts welcomed the plan of action and called for close consultation with residents and businesses every step of the way.

She said: “This is a very important site in Taunton which we need to work cross-party on to get it right. This is going to affect my children and generations 25 to 50 years down the line.” 

Councillor Gwilym Wren praised the proposals for a multi-use venue, but warned that the town’s transport issues would need to be resolved for it to be a success.

He said: “The development will require a certain amount of parking – if you don’t improve the parking, you will need to improve the transport into the site.”

Councillor Francesca Smith called for a strict timescale to be set on these proposals, to prevent it from being “kicked into the long grass” when the new council replaces Taunton Deane in May 2019.

After around two hours of discussion, councillors backed Mr Williams’ proposals for further research and a cross-party steering group.

A report on separate proposals for a hotel on part of the Firepool site – which were subject to a public consultation in October – will come before the full council in December.

Taunton Deane Borough Council has been approached for a response to Mr Morrell’s allegations regarding the cost of Project Taunton and the John Lewis report.