‘Everyone wants to come to Preston anyway’: push for station area revamp to go ahead in spite of HS2 cancellation

There is no reason for a major redevelopment of the area around Preston station to be derailed by the cancellation of the northern leg of the HS2 link, according to a city property expert.
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Matt Eastham was responding to warnings from local politicians that the revamp could be in jeopardy in the wake of the government's announcement last week that the high speed rail connection would not make it to Manchester, as originally intended. He said that a similar curtailing of Preston's own plans would be a huge “backward step” if it were allowed to happen - because so many people wanted to invest in Preston regardless.

Although the line itself was never going to reach Lancashire, the trains that had travelled on it further south were due to pass through Preston en route to Scotland - and it was the promise of HS2 that underpinned a vision for sweeping changes in the vicinity of the city’s railway station.

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Chief amongst them was the creation of so called ‘grade A’ office space on the site of the Fishergate Shopping Centre in order to tempt major public and private sector employees to come to Preston - and encourage those that were already here to remain.

Can Preston's regeneration vision come to fruition without HS2? (image via Invest Preston)Can Preston's regeneration vision come to fruition without HS2? (image via Invest Preston)
Can Preston's regeneration vision come to fruition without HS2? (image via Invest Preston)
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Matt, who is the managing director of residential property agency Easthams and Co., told the Lancashire Post that it would be frustrating if that blueprint were allowed to hit the buffers - not least because he believes it is the lack of suitable premises that is deterring potential investors in the city, rather than the time it takes to travel here from elsewhere.

“There have been two government departments which I’ve been aware of that have wanted to move to Preston in the last 10 years, but they haven't been able to because there just hasn't been sufficient suitable office accommodation to house them. So we've lost them to other parts of the country.

“The same was true of an online retailer that was looking at Preston at one point, but was forced to reconsider,” Matt revealed.

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Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown last week told the Post that if the then widely mooted HS2 cancellation came to pass, it would put a question mark over the so-called Preston Station Regeneration Framework. His concerns were echoed by the deputy Liberal Democrat group leader on the city authority, Neil Darby.

While Cllr Brown stressed that a full assessment of the changed situation would be needed - and that “a conversation” was still required about public sector office space - Matt Eastham says that it makes no sense to suggest that Preston's regeneration vision hinged on HS2. He added that most of those who would work in any newly-built offices would either already live in the city or would move to it.

As a specialist in helping people relocate for work, Matt says that Preston has recently become a magnet - even with its existing travel connections.

“Inward migration to Preston is up 80 percent just since Covid. Something like four out of every five [of our clients] are relocating from outside Preston into it, whereas historically [we] used to be moving people the other way, to Manchester and Liverpool..

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"Even for rail commuters into Preston, people work on the train anyway - so what difference would HS2 have really made?"

He said that decent office space would only enhance Preston’s attraction to big-name employers, as a result of cheaper land values than in some bigger cities.

Meanwhile, Lancashire County Council - which commissioned the regeneration framework plan along with Preston City Council - says it can still see a future for the ambitions it contains.

Aidy Riggott, County Hall’s cabinet member for economic development and growth, said: "I understand why the Prime Minister has decided to cancel the Birmingham to Manchester leg of HS2. Whilst this decision may have an impact on planned developments at and surrounding Preston station, I am confident that our plans to regenerate the area…will still be an incredibly attractive investment opportunity and secure Preston's place as Lancashire's primary rail station.

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"Furthermore, the announcement that £19.8bn is earmarked for transport projects in the North means we can explore funding for other schemes in Lancashire with [the] government. Our track record of successfully securing funding such as for Cottam Parkway and delivering new and improved rail stations at Buckshaw Parkway, Burnley Manchester Road and at Accrington over the last decade will complement and strengthen Lancashire's case.

"We will be making our case for Lancashire to receive support for a number of our highest priority transport schemes, road, rail and bus, which are already well advanced and will bring significant benefits for our economy, businesses and residents," County Cllr Riggott added.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last week said that all of the money saved by cancelling HS2 in the North would be reinvested in a raft of other rail and road projects under the umbrella of “Network North”. The document produced to accompany the announcement listed dozens of schemes, but only one Lancashire project was amongst those so far identified - the conversion of the A582 between Lostock Hall and Penwortham into a dual carriageway.