What do we do with a problem like Taunton?

Taunton High StreetFollowers of my spoutings will recognise a familiar theme in my concern about the future for our current (more of that later) County Town, Taunton. Since I moved here 20 years ago, the town hasn’t really adapted. Sure, Fore Street was pedestrianised and the pavements on North Street widened but that was more than a decade ago. More recently we’ve seen the redevelopment of Castle Green (mixed reviews), the new stand and public space at the Cricket Ground (generally well received) and the County Museum and Goodlands Gardens (almost universally applauded). But little else. The refurbishment of High Street seems to have ground to a halt halfway through and it now appears to be acceptable to replace any fancy paving slab or paver with a blob of tarmac; frankly, much of the town looks a mess. Add into the mix the loss of the Brewhouse, many shops, the closure of most of the town centre’s pubs, all but one of the night clubs and much of the late bus service and we have a recipe for decline. We are not going to create a vibrant commercial centre based on a blend of coffee shops, payday loaners and bookmakers (no offence to them). We need to do something different.

Cities like Bristol and Exeter and towns like Weston and Bridgwater have stolen a march on Taunton. While they have determined a path towards differing goals, Taunton has drifted. Our competitors capitalised on high retail values to produce schemes like Princesshay in Exeter or produced warehousing and distribution schemes like Express Park in Bridgwater. The current economic climate makes emulating (why are we emulating and not leading?) such schemes more difficult but not impossible. We have the opportunity to do something special at Firepool. We must not squander the site on a new supermarket; that’ll attract precisely no-one to Taunton. I’ve always felt that we missed a golden opportunity in the mid 90s when our Council decided to locate the cinema and bowling alley at Hankridge and Safeway (now Morrisons) next to the river in the town centre. The two developments ought to have been located in reverse. That way we could have had a vibrant entertainment quarter in the centre of Taunton comprising the Cricket Ground, cinema, bowling, pubs and restaurants and the Brewhouse.

And while we are on the subject of the Brewhouse, I have always said that it is very sad that it closed earlier this year and while I welcome the Council’s potential plan to re-open it this can only be a stop-gap. With just 350 seats, it was always going to struggle to be much more than a community facility. While Taunton is currently home to 6o-odd thousand people, the Council’s Core Strategy plans to allow a further 17,000 homes over the next 15 years. If delivered, we can reasonably expect the town to grow to nearer 100,000, a town more like the size of Oldham, Colchester or Blackburn. A town of such size, indeed of our current size, deserves and commands a cultural and entertainment venue of significantly greater size than the Brewhouse. So, while I welcome the prospect of its re-opening, it must only be temporary, while options for a larger venue are sought. And Firepool must be preserved for a development of real stature; something that draws new visitors to Taunton, even if that means keeping it vacant for a little longer.

Of particular pain to Tauntonians must be the renaissance of local rival, Bridgwater. When I arrived in Taunton 20 years ago, many locals, perhaps slightly unkindly, scoffed at Bridgwater as very much the poorer cousin. Well they don’t anymore. For the last decade, Bridgwater has aggressively pursued an economic policy to put Taunton in the shade. While Taunton has built on its industrial land such as Taunton Cider and Taunton Trading Estate, Bridgwater has assiduously identified and enabled employment development on large areas of new ground. So much has Bridgwater’s star begun to eclipse Taunton’s I have started to fear that it could become the County town.

Along with many other things like the cattle market, the area’s main police operations base is moving from Taunton to Bridgwater. The main police station in Taunton will close and we will be left with some residual enquiry office. This may seem trivial but think about it. Arrested individuals from Taunton, Bridgwater and the wider area will soon all be held at the new operations base at Express Park. Bridgwater Magistrates Court has closed, and remanded prisoners will in future be transported from the new Bridgwater custody centre to Taunton Magistrates Court. But how long before some bright spark at Sedgemoor District Council or Avon & Somerset Constabulary suggests that a new Magistrates Court be built in Bridgwater to save the cost of all that secure transport between the two towns. How long before someone at the Justice Department suggests that the Crown and County Courts at Shire Hall, Taunton are past their sell-by date and would be better accommodated in a new court centre in Bridgwater. These are not my fanciful musings. This is exactly what happened when I was a lad in Cornwall. When I arrived with my family in Truro in 1976, Bodmin was the County Town of Cornwall. When I left 12 years later to go to University, Truro had become the County Town. After a period of decline in Bodmin, the final straw that led to the loss of County Town status was the transfer of the Crown and County Courts to Truro. These things are not set in stone. Taunton has no divine right to be the County Town of Somerset and unless Taunton Deane Borough Council wakes up, Taunton will become nothing more than an over-sized, poorly-equipped rural town living in the shadow of Bridgwater.

I reckon my views are shared quite widely across the Borough, not just in the town itself, as the vitality of many of the surrounding towns and villages depends on the success of Taunton. You hear the plaintive comments everywhere, on the doorstep, in private conversation, on Twitter, in the Gazette. If we want to see something different, something better, now is the time to write and tell Taunton Deane Borough Council. Tell John Williams that we want something better for our town. He and his colleagues will be asking for your vote in just 18 months time so there’s a chance that they might listen.

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