New plans to deliver a major regeneration site in Taunton town centre will go out to public consultation before Christmas.

Somerset West and Taunton Council has been working to regenerate the Firepool brownfield site, which lies between the River Tone and Canal Road near the town’s railway station.

Efforts to bring development forward – whether residential or commercial – have been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic and the phosphates crisis.

The council has now published a new masterplan for the site, which will go out to public consultation in late-November before being formally adopted next year.

Here’s everything you need to know:

What was in the original Firepool masterplan?

The council put forward its first masterplan for the Firepool site in June 2019, which divided the site into six blocks:

  • Block 1, at the south-eastern corner of the site, was earmarked for at least 20 apartments in an unspecified number of blocks, providing good views of the river or Somerset County Cricket Club
  • Block 2, at the eastern end, was also allocated for residential use – but for “contemporary modular terraced town houses” with a number of apartments
  • Block 3, at the northern end of the central boulevard, would see the former GWR offices refurbished alongside offices, food and drink outlets and other commercial uses
  • Block 4, east of the main boulevard, would have housing on its northern and eastern edges (blending into Block 2), with the remainder being taken up by a multi-use performance venue (or more apartments if this doesn’t prove viable)
  • Block 5, to the west of the boulevard, would have been home to a commercial hotel, while the eastern edge will have a five-screen cinema
  • Block 6 would have housed a new innovation centre

Somerset County Gazette: Artist's impression of the new Firepool digital innovation centre and renovated GWR offices.Artist's impression of the new Firepool digital innovation centre and renovated GWR offices. (Image: LUC)

Councillor Mike Rigby, portfolio holder for economic development, planning and transport, said the pandemic and other related factors meant that a rethink was needed to make the best of the challenging site.

He said: “There have been significant challenges in bringing forward commercially viable and policy-compliant development on this site, but we recognise the immense economic, social and environmental benefits of this development to the town, and we’re taking proactive steps to bring this regeneration to fruition and get delivery moving here.”

What is in the new masterplan?

While many of the components of the original masterplan remain, there have been quite a number of changes.

The number of intended dwellings has been reduced from 506 to 430, with a mixture of apartments, student flats and town houses.

The ‘leisure quarter’ still includes the multi-purpose venue, a 130-bed hotel and a cinema (now with eight screens) – but it will also now include a bowling alley, a nursery and a health hub, along with “limited commercial and retail floorspace”.

The council has not commented whether this was done in response to the £16m Northgate Yard leisure complex in Bridgwater, which includes a cinema and bowling alley and was recently opened by Sedgemoor District Council.

The masterplan incorporates the Somerset Digital Innovation Centre which is already under construction, as well as the elements of Block 3 which already have planning permission and the central boulevard which could be approved in the coming weeks.

It also includes a “centralised cycle hub” with secure storage, “re-provision” of the existing boat club, and more open space and play areas for both residents and visitors.

Where do things stand with planning permission? 

The council originally intended to bring forward the Firepool site using a local development order (LDO) – whereby the council sets out guidelines of what can be built in a given area, rather than having to approve separate planning applications.

Similar orders are already in place for the Nexus 25 business park site near the M5 and for the Gravity enterprise zone between the villages of Puriton and Woolavington.

However, efforts to secure a Firepool LDO have been stymied by the Dutch N court ruling, which means any development which would increase the phosphate levels on the Somerset Levels and Moors requires a huge amount of additional mitigation.

Somerset County Gazette: Artist's impression of amphitheatre as part of the planned boulevard within the Firepool regeneration site in TauntonArtist's impression of amphitheatre as part of the planned boulevard within the Firepool regeneration site in Taunton (Image: AHR Architects)

The council therefore decided to bring forward separate planning applications for the site, allowing the delivery of the aspects which were least affected by the phosphates issue and allowing more time for additional mitigation measures to be agreed and secured.

To this end, the council’s planning committee voted in early-February to approve plans for a new access road, which will link the Firepool site to the A3087 Trenchard Way and eventually connect up with Canal Road.

In mid-March, the same committee voted to approve two further applications for the site – one which would see the entire site raised to prevent flooding (with the former auction house being demolished), and one to convert the former GWR offices (Block 3 within the original masterplan) into a restaurant, with new offices and commercial outlets being erected nearby.

Further plans to deliver the southern boulevard through the site, along with an amphitheatre, water feature and cycle route from the railway station, will come before the planning committee on Thursday afternoon (November 10).

Around 150 metres south of the Firepool site, a new bridge over the River Tone is planned, linking the existing cycle route along the north bank near the Morrison’s car park to Somerset County Cricket Club and the Coal Orchard regeneration site – which will be formally opened to the public on Saturday morning (November 5).

This bridge, if approved, will be funded in its entirety by the government’s future high street’s fund, with £13.9m being provided for infrastructure within the Firepool and Coal Orchard sites, as well as delivering a new cycle link between Taunton railway station and Vivary Park.

In the longer term, the Firepool site will form part of a wider network of cycling routes stretching across Taunton and the neighbouring villages, building on the local cycling and walking infrastructure plan (LCWIP) created by Somerset County Council.

What is actually happening on the ground right now?

The Firepool site has been largely vacant since the closure of the cattle market in 2008, save for the temporary boulevard which was created in 2019 in time for Taunton to host three group stage matches in the men’s cricket world cup.

While the access road plans were approved in February, the council opted to delay construction until after the summer holidays, so that the scheme would not clash with an ongoing £11.6m programme to replace traffic signals across Somerset.

Much of the delivery of the Firepool regeneration scheme depends upon the site being raised to prevent flooding and sufficient mitigation being in place to prevent any net increase in phosphates as a result of the development.

To that end, the council has appointed Montel Civil Engineering to begin site clearance and preparatory works on Monday (November 7), allowing phase one of the drainage works to start.

These ‘enabling works’ will remove existing obstructions above and below
ground, and construct new sewer networks and surface water infrastructure, as well as lifting the bulk of the site out of the flood plain to protect future development across the site.

Mr Rigby said: “I am delighted to see detailed arrangements in place by our contractor for the start of this complex work.

“The issue of flood risk and management was one of the biggest challenges for us to address when preparing Firepool for redevelopment.

“Lifting the site above the flood plain is key to enabling our ambitious development proposals at this accessible and sustainable brownfield location to be brought forward.”

Andy McAdam of Montel Civil Engineering added: “We are delighted to be involved in this substantial project and are working closely with the council to ensure that disruption and inconvenience is kept to a minimum for both residents and local businesses during the course of our work.

“Firepool is a central site in Taunton and maintaining open and positive engagement with the local community plays an essential part in delivering a successful project.

“We will shortly have a website giving an overview of our project works, including progress photos, and phasing diagrams.

“Progress reports and any traffic management changes will also be included in our project newsletter which we will distribute regularly during the progress of this key project.”

The council has been working with the Environment Agency (EA) and the Somerset Rivers Authority (SRA) on a number of flood prevention schemes in Taunton town centre – including one to raise the lock gates at Firepool Lock and build new flood defences near the start of the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal.

Council leader Federica Smith-Roberts confirmed in July that these schemes would not hold up the delivery of the Firepool regeneration programme.

Elsewhere within the Firepool site itself, work is continuing on the new £11m Somerset Digital Innovation Centre, which is being delivered by the county council.

Construction began in November 2021 (nine months after the council’s regulation committee granted planning permission), with the new facility expected to be fully operational by early-2023.

What do local councillors think of the new masterplan?

The masterplan was discussed by the council’s corporate scrutiny committee when it met in Taunton on Wednesday evening (November 2).

Mr Rigby said: “Things have changed a lot in the last couple of years, particularly post-covid.

“In order to give effect to the aspirations that we all have for Firepool, we take the view that new policy needs to be devised, to guide that development and make sure we get the types of uses on the site that we want to see.”

Councillor Brenda Weston, whose Priorswood ward borders the Firepool site, raised concerns about how businesses on and around Station Road would be affected by the new masterplan.

She said: “I think we’d all like to see this moving forward, but will there be some consultation with the businesses that are going to be bypassed by the boulevard on Station Road and Bridge Street?

“I’m just a bit concerned that a lot of them lose out on the town centre activity and engagement in that area, and it would be nice to get the council and those businesses a bit closer together.”

Graeme Thompson, the council’s principal planning policy officer, said businesses would be able to take part in the consultation either through an online survey or a series of organised events.

Councillor Ian Aldridge questioned how the success of the masterplan would be measured, given the delivery of the site would fall to the new unitary Somerset Council after April 1, 2023.

He said: “It’s a rather tight timetable to put something firmly enough together which we aren’t going to deliver.

“How do we see the delivery phase of this coming through? What probability should we put upon what we visualise for Taunton now actually happening in the next few years ahead?”

Mr Rigby replied: “We’ve seen lots of false starts in the past. We see it being implemented in phases.

“The drainage works will get us to the point where the site is develop-able, but the next council will make the decisions about exactly how the site is parcelled up. Phasing is key to this.

“It’s something that is going to take, realistically, several years to build out. The multi-purpose venue, if that becomes a firm possibility, is something I expect you would see at the end of the programme rather than the beginning.

“We’re probably talking three, four, five years down the line – but it’s something that, with my county council head on, I will continue to bang the drum for.”

What happens next?

The Firepool masterplan will come before the council’s executive committee on November 16, before going out to public consultation.

The consultation is currently scheduled to take place between November 21 and January 2, 2023 – with more details being made public after the executive meeting.

If all goes well, the finished masterplan is expected to come before the full council for approval in March 2023 – just before the council is replaced by the new unitary Somerset Council.