NOW that the Coal Orchard development is nearing completion are Somerset West and Taunton Councillors still comfortable with their scheme?

With the unfortunate combination of a council which, in order to maximise development income, has ignored its own planning policies, and a Design Review Panel that has produced a flawed report, the potential of Coal Orchard has been lost.

It brings into question whether the council had the expertise to embark on this scheme in the first place and whether the Design Review Panel had the necessary local knowledge and understanding of the town to give sound and appropriate design advice.

Over the years this area of small independent businesses has been a much loved shopping destination. Any new development should have protected, nurtured and enhanced this asset by adopting a similar character and scale.

Unfortunately, the council’s scheme has not.

The council has failed to follow its own development guidelines. In the Conservation Area Appraisal (2007) the council states it would ensure the ‘Sympathetic redevelopment of the riverside and swimming pool site. This should respond to the scale, grain, structure and appearance of the surrounding historic townscape’.

Somerset County Gazette: Plan of how the Coal Orchard development will look once completed
How the finished Coal Orchard is set to look

In the Taunton Rethink Report (2014): ‘A new place on the river will be created at Coal Orchard; an artisan quarter and cultural hub with a revitalised theatre and arts centre, artists’ studios, galleries and independent shops’.

When the council’s development proposals were revealed three years ago, over 1,000 residents signed a petition objecting to the planning application on the grounds that ‘The proposed buildings are out of scale and out of character with the area’.

However, the council’s own influential design advisors welcomed the project.

The local Design Review Panel, (part of a national organisation of advisors to local authorities) felt the proposed blocks feel sensitive to the character of the surrounding conservation area, while at the same time successfully proposing a contemporary sense of place.

The reality is very different. The rigid grid of pedestrian routes bounded by large over-powering blocks is completely at odds with the informal and inviting character of the area’s courtyards and narrow streets.

There are many sites, including Firepool, where bold contemporary architecture would be appropriate, but in Coal Orchard it looks brutal and intrusive.

READ MORE: Petition in opposition to Coal Orchard plans
READ MORE: First tenants unveiled for Taunton's Coal Orchard development

The council has not grasped the fact that town centres will change radically in the coming decades as traditional retailing will be replaced by recreational shopping, leisure activities and restaurants.

Experience here and abroad indicates that the best way to facilitate this change is by keeping the old character and ensuring that new development encourages small independent enterprises.

The site itself is over developed, leaving little room for adequate car parking and site servicing. The car park of 42 spaces will be insufficient to serve 1910sqm of commercial space, 42 flats (no dedicated car parking) as well as existing businesses and shops.

Most of the site servicing will be via a small service bay adjacent to the Brewhouse Theatre and everything from restaurant supplies to household furniture and deliveries will have to be carted in from there. Congestion inevitably will spill out onto surrounding streets.

The council here is both developer and planning authority. This is a difficult path to navigate.

So why raise suspicions by blatantly ignoring planning policies and guidelines? Why was the planning application approved without the formal observations of Somerset County Council Highways? Why was drainage work started without written planning approval? Why were details of materials not approved in writing before construction? Why was the colour of the zinc cladding changed from the approved plans? Why has tarmac been laid on the St James Street and Coal Orchard footpaths when the approved plan shows natural stone paving?

Taunton is now stuck with this development. What a wasted opportunity.