Where will the new council be?

Deane House in the centre of Taunton has been done up. It cost an absurd sum – £7.5 million for the building work and decoration alone. Even dottier is the fact that the site, tarted building included, will be worth less than £2.5 million when complete. Oh yes, I almost forgot, they have failed to find a single tenant for the ground and second floors!  It is an expensive farce.  Meantime the old Taunton Deane Council and the new “Shadow” West Somerset & Taunton council meet at a golf club miles from anywhere. I am seriously worried. This is a symptom of major financial problems that are turning our county town into a laughing stock. This week the latest bombshell  exploded. St Modwen, Taunton’s chosen developers for Firepool, decided that the project was going nowhere and abandoned ship. Firepool has been a vacant eyesore for ten years.

St Modwen, which has successfully regenerated several other run-down places in the UK, realised that mixed developments of shops offices and flats no longer attract enough clients. The company started abandoning other such investments months ago. Quitting Taunton was inevitable. Equally certain is that this derelict eyesore will remain exactly that for many years to come – thanks to blinkered council planning and inept leadership. Unfortunately this is not a one-off. Taunton has become notorious for championing projects that have failure written all over them. Another is the Coal Orchard site, nearby. Taunton wants to cut the number of car parking spaces, knock down the old swimming pool, build shops and flats and they believe it will yield generous revenue. Hmmm.

Some of the work began this week. But the entire project has been rubbished by a leading firm of  property experts who believe the figures Taunton Deane have been given are completely unrealistic. Far from making millions of pounds for the council Scotsgrove Holdings Ltd say that Taunton Deane will end up with substantial losses. This assessment fits in exactly with St Modwen’s  view and suggests that Taunton has, once more, got it wrong.

Finally there is the issue of the County Council, also based in Taunton but now teetering on the brink of insolvency and holding out the begging bowl to Whitehall  while savagely cutting important services. The County Council Leader thinks it may be time for the Government to call it a day and scrap all these councils in favour of a shiny new Unitary authority which would come with a clean bill of health. It may sound an attractive proposition but I offer one large dose of caution. Somerset County Council is woefully inefficient. Taunton Deane is badly led and managed. I fear that any new authority based in Taunton would see many of the same faces in key roles.