MORE than £20 million could be made available to regenerate Taunton town centre if a bid for central government funding is successful.

Somerset West and Taunton Council has applied to the government’s future high streets fund, asking for money to support projects which will improve town centre footfall and make the area more attractive to visitors.

If successful, the money will support the new developments at Coal Orchard and Firepool (including the planned multi-purpose venue at the latter site), as well as providing improved pedestrian and cycling facilities.

The council will also be using funding accumulated from housing developers to drive these ambitions forward.

Here’s everything you need to know about the council’s bid – and what it could mean for the town centre:

What is the future high streets fund?

The future high streets fund was created by central government in the 2018 budget to “help local areas make their high streets and town centres fit

for the future”.

The £675m fund is administered by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), and can be spent on projects designed to regenerate town centres.

Successful bids should “provide convenience, a sense of community and add value through services not offered online” – in other words, the money cannot be spent on dropping business rates on empty shops or other such initiatives.

How much is the council bidding for?

The council can bid for a maximum of £25m – but most successful authorities will not get the full amount.

Somerset West and Taunton is competing against 49 other local authorities for a share of the fund – with the government saying most will receive between £5m and £10m once all bids have been assessed.

As a result, the council has lowered the amount being sought to £20.2m.

How will it be spent?

Of the £20.2m the council is asking for, the majority will be spent on delivering the Firepool site.

A total of £16.91m will be allocated to the development – of which £9m will go towards the proposed 1,500-seater multi-purpose venue at its heart.

The business case for this venue is still being developed by the council, and other elements of the site (such as the proposed hotel and cinema) could be brought forward first.

The other £7.91m will be spent on infrastructure within the Firepool site, improvements to the public realm (e.g. artwork and planting) and “enabling works” to open up the site for the different types of redevelopment.

A further £2.2m has been earmarked for the ongoing Coal Orchard regeneration, which will include housing, restaurants and retail space near the River Tone.

The remaining £1.09m will go towards improved pedestrian and cycling facilities to “reduce traffic in the town centre” – specifically:

  • The boulevard through the Firepool site linking the river and railway station
  • A river crossing to the Coal Orchard site
  • Improvements on High Street, North Street, St James Street and near Vivary Park
  • More cycling parking within the town centre

Kate Murdoch, the council’s strategy specialist, said these projects would improve the cultural and leisure offer with a view to increasing footfall and dwell time in the town centre”.

What other money is available for these projects?

Councillor Mike Rigby, portfolio holder for planning policy and transport, said there was “an expectation of co-funding” – in other words, that councils put some of their own money towards the projects on top of whatever they receive from the government.

The full council approved plans to allocate £1.5m of community infrastructure levy (CIL) towards these projects.

CIL is paid by housing developers and can be used to fund infrastructure improvements (such as cycle paths and pedestrian links) which will benefit the wider community, not just the residents of a given development site.

Of the £1.5m being allocated from the council’s central CIL pot, £1m will go towards the pedestrian and cycling improvements and £500,000 towards the Firepool multi-purpose venue.

The council can also fund these projects through its new homes bonus allocations (paid by central government) and external borrowing where necessary.

What about money from the unparished area of Taunton?

Taunton is unusual in that it has no parish or town council to represent local interests directly.

To make up for this, the district council has a committee called the Taunton charter trustees, which is made up of all councillors elected to any of the Taunton wards.

At a virtual meeting on Wednesday evening (April 29), the trustees voted to allocate a further £107,000 of CIL funding entirely to improved pedestrian and cycling facilities, rather than the Firepool multi-purpose venue.

Councillor Caroline Ellis – whose North Town ward borders the Firepool site – said: “This scheme will have wide benefits – it fits with our zero carbon commitments, it will make the town safer, it will boost the town centre.

“The multi-purpose venue is a bit of a white elephant.”

Councillor Brenda Weston (who represents the neighbouring Priorswood ward) added: “The lack of clarity about the venue makes it difficult to say: ‘let’s go that way’.”

How does this fit in with the future of the Brewhouse theatre?

The future of the Brewhouse Theatre is a real hot potato in Taunton.

Some want the council to provide more funding and allow the theatre to expand, while others believe the theatre should be superseded by the multi-purpose venue within the Firepool site.

Councillor Keith Wheatley said on Monday (April 27): “The implication is that we are gradually moving towards the acceptance of a multi-purpose venue and the disappearance of a theatre in the town – and I for one am opposed to that.”

A planned £20m revamp of the venue by the Taunton Theatre Association (TTA) is on hold pending the business case for the multi-purpose venue.

Councillor Benet Allen, portfolio holder for communications and culture, said in January that the council would continue to provide the theatre with an annual grant of £132,000, as well as a one-off sum of £28,000 to cover urgent repairs.

Mr Rigby added on Monday (April 27): “This bid does not consider our future direction of travel regarding our future support for the Brewhouse. We’ll have further discussions about this in times to come.”

Somerset County Gazette:
Station Road, Taunton

What about Station Road?

A number of councillors have raised concerns that businesses on Station Road would be negatively impacted by the Firepool project.

Councillor Brenda Weston said: “Are we actually wanting to allow Station Road to wither and for those businesses to go under?

“We have some really good businesses there, but as I far as I’m aware they don’t feature in any of our future plans.”

Councillor Roger Habgood added: “Station Road is an area we need to get done. When we get Firepool done, that will be heavily impacted.”

Ms Murdoch said the council would address problems in Station Road with different sources of funding – and acknowledged concerns raised by the Taunton Area Cycling Campaign (TACC) about the lack of facilities there.

She said: “Our consultants have looked at this at a high level, and there were no value-for-money options that we could implement there which would also align with the future high streets fund bid.”

Mr Rigby added the issues surrounding Station Road would form part of the wider Taunton transport strategy, which will be published later in the year.

What about other towns in the district – can they get funding?

The council is currently only applying for money to help Taunton town centre – but it could put apply to fund projects in Wellington, Minehead or other towns across the district in the next round of funding.

Councillor Mark Blaker – who represents Wiveliscombe – said: “There are other high streets in the district – and now more than ever, we are seeing an impact on those.”

Councillor Hazel Prior-Sankey – who chairs full council meetings – said she would ensure the council’s officers looked into this matter.

What happens next?

The council submitted its application to the fund on Thursday (April 30).

If the council is not awarded the full amount, the MHCLG will indicate which projects best meet the funding criteria (and therefore which should be prioritised).

Ms Murdoch told the Taunton charter trustees on Wednesday (April 29): “The government will indicate which of the projects they consider tick more of their boxes for the fund.

“They may support Firepool and Coal Orchard over the cycling routes and the venue”.

Construction is continuing on the Coal Orchard site during the lockdown, while an update on the Firepool site was discussed in confidential session on Monday (April 27).

Mr Rigby said the council would be putting forward plans to help the high street recover from the coronavirus regardless of the outcome of the bid.

He said: “We are acutely aware of the struggles that high streets across the district are having.

“We are coming up with a post-covid recovery strategy which will focus on our high streets.”