MORE than £800,000 WILL be spent on the vacant Firepool site in Taunton, putting in a new access road and clearing up the land for future development.

Taunton Deane Borough Council announced on March 13 that it would be committing a six-figure sum for “site enabling activities” which would “adequately secure the site and enhance the physical environment.”

This decision was discussed by the council’s scrutiny committee on Thursday evening (March 21) after two councillors asked for further detail on how and why the money was being spent.

The work will take place in three phases between April and October, and will allow pedestrian and cycle access between the town centre and the railway station through the creation of a temporary boulevard.

Deputy leader Mark Edwards said in a report to full council on Wednesday (March 20) that the funding was prompted by the signing off of legal agreements between itself and Somerset County Council.

Planning permission was granted to St Modwen to develop the site back in March 2018 – which remains in place even after the developer dropped out six months later.

Mr Edwards told the full council: “We have finance in place so we can create an access to Firepool so we can begin to get some development done. We need to get on with things.”

Councillors Habib Farbahi and Ian Morrell ‘called in’ Mr Edwards’ decision – meaning it had to be considered by the scrutiny committee before any action could place.

Speaking at the scrutiny meeting on Thursday (March 21), Mr Farbahi said: “The track record of this administration, spending millions of pounds on vision after vision and achieving little, makes us nervous.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions, and I am uneasy about spending more money without a proper plan in place.”

Mr Morrell asked for a breakdown of exactly where the money would be spent.

He said: “Considering the past of this project and the £10M which has been spent on it to date, we need to be transparent.

“We are not here to stop the expenditure – we need to know what it is being spent on, and to make sure that transparency occurs.”

The £825,000 will come from within £16.6M of funding the council has accumulated from the new homes bonus, which is paid to councils by central government for delivering new housing against annual targets.

Council leader John Williams gave his word that the mix of development planned for the site would be reviewed by councillors after the local elections in May, to ensure it met the wider needs of Taunton.

He said: “The mix that the planning consent went through on will be totally reviewed to make sure it is premises we can deliver and that somebody will want.

“If there is no market for retail, we won’t build retail, full stop.”

The enabling works on the Firepool site will be carried out in three phases:

Site security and temporary boulevard (£250,000): any necessary archaeological studies will be carried out, and the site will be secured through new fencing, lighting and CCTV. A temporary boulevard will be created from Trenchard Way to Canal Street and Priory Bridge Road as “a public message of commitment”, and to “reinforce the importance of this essential component” in order to attract new investors. Time-scale: April to June 2019

Site clean-up and landscaping (£215,000): slabs from the former cattle market will be broken up and relaid in order to raise the site, which is deemed to be “essential work in advance of development”. There will also be “some basic landscaping to make the area look more attractive in the short term.” Time-scale: April to June 2019

Highway access (£360,000): This share of the money will be paid to the county council, who will then produce a new access road to Trenchard Way at the top of the site. This is seen as “a critical element” in opening up the site and creating access to the river. Time-scale: June to October 2019

Several councillors welcomed the new information and asked for work to begin at the soonest opportunity.

Councillor Libby Lisgo said: “If we want to see progress on this Firepool site, then let’s get on and do that. Let’s at least create that sense that something is started to happen there.”

Councillor Nicholas Townsend added: “I doubt there’s anyone in Taunton that wants the site to stay as it is. This is the least we can do. I’d say we would be failing our electors by not doing this.”

Others, however, were less sympathetic in their assessment of the situation.

Councillor Ross Henley said: “This site is indicative of the failure of the leadership of this council that after nine years we are celebrating the breaking up of rocks.”

Councillor Jefferson Horsley added: “One of the biggest memory lapses that has afflicted every single one of you is the fact that, when this proposal was first put forward, it was to have been carbon neutral. There was not one mention of that by John Williams.

“That memory lapse is going to come back and haunt you, because if you don’t start thinking along those lines, you will perpetuate the problem.”

Councillor Federica Smith-Roberts, who chairs the scrutiny committee, called for better communication about the Firepool situation in future.

She said: “If we’d had the detail that’s now been presented to us before the call-in, I don’t think we’d be here tonight.”

The committee voted to take no further action on the call-in – meaning that the work can proceed as planned.

The council announced on March 13 that the new access road to the Firepool site will be named ‘Jackie Moggridge Way’, in honour of Taunton pilot Jackie Moggridge who flew with the RAF during the Second World War.

The road will link up with the Northern Inner Distributor Road, which was rechristened Trenchard Way in April 2018 in honour of Hugh Montague Trenchard, widely regarded as the father of the RAF.

Candida Adkins, the daughter of Jackie Moggridge, said she and her sister were “thrilled” at the announcement.

She said: “She [Jackie] lived in Taunton from the age of 22, when my father brought her here as a newly married couple in 1946.

“She always felt it was her true home.  She would have been amazed to find a road named after her, especially off Trenchard Way.”

Mr Williams added: “It is a fitting tribute to this remarkable pilot that we can name a new road after her forming a link into Firepool from Trenchard Way.

“Jackie Moggridge Way signals another step in the realisation of our ambitions for Firepool, and we are proud of the association it will hold with this true pioneer.”