MUCH maligned plans to build a £16 million hotel on Taunton's Firepool site have been declared 'dead' by the new Somerset West and Taunton Council.

The recently elected members met for the first time last night (Wednesday, May 22) to elect a new leader, chairman, and committee members.

Public question time saw the issue of climate change raised repeatedly, as well as the future of the controversial Firepool hotel plan.

Former councillor Alan Debenham used his public question time to call for the Liberal Democrat leadership to 'revoke the Tory hotel', suggesting instead that a climate emergency centre be built in its place.

In response, Cllr Habib Farbahi said: "I can assure that, with immediate effect, we are going to drop the Firepool hotel venture.

"We think we can do a lot better with council taxpayers' money.

"I do not believe in playing monopoly with taxpayers' money.

"That is dead."

His announcement was met with applause from the public, led by Mr Debenham.

The plan for the council to borrow money for the £16 million Firepool hotel had caused a lot of contention on the Conservative-led Taunton Deane Borough Council.

The divide had not been strictly along party lines either, with Tory Cllr Roger Habgood opposing the scheme, and Liberal Democrat Cllr Federica Smith-Roberts voting in favour of the plans at a council meeting in December.

Cllr Smith-Roberts, who was elected leader of Somerset West and Taunton Liberal Democrats at the start of this month, was also picked to be the new leader of the council at tonight's meeting.

After the unanimous vote, she said: "I am so honoured to be appointed leader of the new council.

"We have so much to achieve over the next four years.

"I want to work with each and every one of you, to work together for the areas that we love.

"We have really great staff here, here to support us and work with us, and I have a brilliant team I will be working alongside.

"Thank you for your support."


READ MORE: Meet the new top team at Somerset West and Taunton District Council


Hazel Prior-Sankey, the former mayor of Taunton Deane, was elected unanimously as the new council chairman.

She said: I am honoured to be the best chairman of this auspicious council. I hope to be able to fulfil the functions with good grace, and with fairness but firmness."

In her first act as chairman, Cllr Prior-Sankey held a moment of silence for Bob Bowrah, who passed away in March after 20 years as a councillor.

Simon Coles, who narrowly missed out to Cllr Smith-Roberts in the leadership bid, was picked as the new vice-chairman.

Independent Cllr John Hunt, who represents the Bishop's Hull and Taunton West ward, asked if the new Somerset West and Taunton council would be working to secure the future of the town's park and ride service.

Last year, Somerset County Council cuts looked to have condemned the service, before Taunton Deane Borough Council agreed to help with funding for 12 months.

That will expire in September, and Cllr Hunt called for the park and ride to not only be saved, but extended to have a weekend service.


READ MORE: Taunton park-and-ride relaunched - with higher fares...


Citing increasing traffic and climate worries, Cllr Hunt joked: "We're going to need teleportation devices from Star Trek to beam us all into town when the 2,000 new homes are built in Comeytrowe.

"If we are serious about the environment, this is a no brainer."

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The council's new planning and highways portfolio, Cllr Mike Rigby, said: "There are some really good points he made about keeping the park and ride running.

"They both fulfil a fundamental role in helping to reduce traffic congestion in the town.

"It is at the top of my list, and is a priority for me and the council as a whole."

Cllr Rigby said he is set to meet with Somerset County Council and the service operator tomorrow to discuss the service, and then SCC's cabinet member for highways and transport Cllr John Woodman at a later date.