Preparing the ground for economic growth

Taunton Deane Borough Council: The importance of economic growth and the Council’s change of approach


Central to the Taunton Deane Borough Council’s ambition is the priority of economic growth and regeneration of the borough and this is clearly set out in its Corporate Business Plan. This priority is important not only to guarantee the future local economy of the borough but also to address pockets of deprivation and to meet the health and housing needs of an ageing population.

This ambition understands that Taunton, as the county town, is the principal growth settlement for Somerset and that an economically vibrant Taunton will underpin a prosperous local and regional economy. Taunton is acknowledged as the “most significant growth hub” in Somerset (Somerset Growth Plan 2014-2020) and is anticipated to receive most of the area’s growth in jobs and housing. [The Council’s Local Plan anticipates 13,000 new homes and 9,500 jobs between 2011-2028.] 

Taunton enjoys geographical advantages with adjacent proximity to the M5 and a fast train connection to London. The Council has recognised that it is necessary to differentiate Taunton from the regional cities of Bristol and Exeter, also on the M5 corridor, and to define Taunton’s niche and unique selling point. 

The Council commissioned a masterplan in 2004 to guide Taunton town centre regeneration. This enabled significant public investment and delivered infrastructure and public realm enhancement. However, following the recession of 2008 the Council realised that development circumstances had changed and that some key private sector elements of the masterplan were not deliverable. This coincided with the LGA’s Corporate Peer Challenge, in September 2012, an important element of which was to consider the Council’s approach to regeneration and economic growth.

Vision, strategy and mechanisms for delivery

In 2014 a revised vision for the development of the town centre - Taunton Rethink - was approved by the Council and partners. 

Taunton Rethink is part of a wider economic growth vision, as set out in the Growth Prospectus for Taunton. The Growth Prospectus was approved by the Council and Somerset County Council in 2014 and outlines a range of key strategic infrastructure projects to unlock economic growth and boost productivity. This shared vision and commitment has already been instrumental in helping secure major funding for planned infrastructure investment, including enhancement of Taunton Railway Station, improvements at Junction 25 of the M5 motorway and funding of circa £275m to dual the A358 into Taunton, as part of a new A303/A358 South West ‘Expressway’ from London.

The Council’s change of approach signalled a break with development commitments set out in its Local Plan and involved making brave decisions to ‘rethink’ the location of economic growth and commit to the development at Junction 25 and mixed use development at Firepool. 

The new growth vision is bold and imaginative, yet is grounded in commercial reality. The work conducted since 2012 has witnessed the building of new infrastructure and the upswing in house building, with the building blocks of growth moving into place. Key partners are clear that they are more positive about the prospects of economic growth delivery.

A strength of this vision is the clear alignment of objectives set out in Taunton Rethink and the Growth Prospectus for Taunton, the Somerset Growth Plan and the Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnership’s (HotSW LEP) Strategic Economic Plan (SEP). The alignment at local, county and sub-regional shows consensus on growth priorities is important to attract partner commitment and funding.

The vision for growth is widely supported by partners, accompanied by significant financial backing. In recent years this has seen new infrastructure installed, an upswing in house building and the building blocks of growth moving into place. This confidence is confirmed with local growth funding allocated to the HotSW LEP, Government funding commitments and that from principal partners. Stakeholders are more positive about the prospects of economic growth delivery and see the Council as leading on this and bringing partners together.  As one put it the Council has “moved from shall we do it to how do we do it.”

The new vision states that “Taunton will ‘think like a city’ to become a first class destination at the heart of the South West, within easy reach of Bristol, London and the Midlands, and the gateway to beautiful scenic landscapes and picturesque coastline”. This clarity, with associated political and senior officer leadership, puts the Council in a strong position to progress growth. The Council’s financial contribution towards key schemes is important as a demonstration to partners of commitment and is crucial for leveraging partner funding.

Timing is important for economic growth. This corresponds with the Government’s priority for growth, as the country emerges from a long and deep recession, and with LEPs moving from development to the implementation phase of funded growth projects.  Similarly, the imminent development of Hinkley Point C power station, to be the largest construction scheme in Europe, is a massive opportunity for the area in the short and long-term with community and growth gains of training and skills development, housing and infrastructure. 

The big schemes in Taunton’s growth - the M5 Junction 25 upgrade, the adjacent creation of a new strategic employment site, the upgrade of the A358 and A303, and the prime 7 hectareTown Centre riverside site of Firepool and the enhancement of Taunton Railway Station - are potential ‘game changers’. Junction 25 requires significant investment and major improvements and has won support from the LEP as the top transport priority in the Heart of the South West area. This work will unlock the adjacent strategic employment site helping to deliver up to 4,000 jobs. The upgraded A358 and A303 will strengthen commercial links with Yeovil and will provide a ‘gateway’ from the South East to the South West. Delivery of these ‘game changers’ will bring associated growth and significant benefits for Taunton, Somerset and wider region.

“Preparing the ground for growth”

The Council sees its work in recent years as preparing the environment to support growth. This has included: progressing work on flood alleviation plans; developing its asset management strategy to maximise the potential of its large asset portfolio; supporting house building, including affordable housing provision; securing road and rail infrastructure and installing enhanced public realm.

The resources secured for the Taunton railway station redevelopment highlights the role of the Council to bring partners together to enable development. The detailed master planning involved the Council working with and alongside Network Rail,Great Western Railway and Somerset County Council. The key funding of £4.6m from the LEP and over £3m fromGreat Western Railway was enabled by the partners being persuaded by the Council’s economic growth vision. This work will not only support increased rail capacity but is expected to create 250 new jobs in the new built environment with an added value of £74m to the local economy.

Similarly the development of the stand and conference facilities at Taunton’s County Cricket Ground, with works of £4m, depended on Council support in the funding bid preparation and has been followed since by the announcement that the ground will host international matches and be a venue for the 2019 Cricket World Cup. These ground improvements are expected to contribute circa £½ m per annum to the local economy.  

Since 2012 there is an improved relationship with Somerset County Council.  This was important in developing the Taunton Growth Prospectus and Somerset Growth Plan that then informed the LEP’s Strategic Economic Plan. This relationship is important and a good example of this was the financial assessments, the modelling work and feasibility studies for the proposed A358/A303 ‘dualling’ and the Junction 25 improvement scheme conducted by the County Council; with support from the Council, particularly in unlocking the proposed strategic employment site.

The Council’s commitment is clearly demonstrated by its use of New Homes Bonus (NHB) to support growth. Each year the Council moves most of its NHB into an earmarked reserve for economic growth and regeneration. This provides a significant resource to stimulate and enable growth and is in marked contrast to many councils who use most or all of their NHB funding to support the revenue budget, which can be a risky strategy.

This growth reserve has been used for commissioning specific pieces of design work or to contract specialist skills. If economic growth projects, or related services, require additional skills/capacity then a business case can be made and, if approved, the resource commissioned/contracted. 

With public spending funding pressures expected to continue, future major project spending is uncertain. The Council recognises that it may be necessary to consider borrowing to forward fund, or bridge, infrastructure funding gaps and this could be of particular importance to ensure that the ‘game changers’ are not stalled. 

Having prepared the ground Taunton is now on the cusp of major economic growth. With the investment in economic infrastructure underway, the prospect of delivery of the above ‘game changers’, along with subsequent inward investment, Taunton is moving forward with the delivery of growth and prosperity.

Conclusions

The principal critical success factors that have been important for Taunton Deane Borough Council to deliver economic growth, include:

  1. A new and clear economic growth vision, shared by partners, led by senior officers and elected members
  2. A willingness to adapt if an economic growth strategy is not working and being fleet of foot to respond to the commercial market.  This has involved the Council making difficult decisions to challenge and break with accepted economic growth beliefs.
  3. The Council’s use of its own resources, principally New Homes Bonus, is important to leverage external funding and to demonstrate its growth commitment to partners.
  4. The Council understands its important role to bring principal partners together to deliver a shared vision of economic growth and prosperity
  5. An understanding that Council assets need to be used in more creative and imaginative ways to support economic growth, house building and to drive income streams.

The LGA came across the economic growth work at Taunton Deane Borough Council during a Corporate Peer Challenge in October 2012 and a follow-up review in June 2015.

For more information from Taunton Deane on this case study please contact: Brendan Cleere, Director - Growth and Development, Taunton Deane Borough Council

Tel. 01823 356350 

Email b.cleere@tauntondeane.gov.uk