Preston City Council has announced that it will adopt a plot on Leighton Street – in the shadow of the University of Central Lancashire – which has been occupied by the Gavin family since the late 1980s.
County Hall pledged to include a clause in any sale which would have meant that the site must be retained for use by the travelling community.
However, the head of the Gavin family warned at the time that the seeming safety net offered them no guarantees that they would not be evicted in favour of other travellers.
Speaking after the city council revealed that it had agreed to take control of the facility, John Gavin said that the move had brought to an end three years of uncertainty – and was “a weight off our mind”.
He also told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that he had been overwhelmed by the support that he and the 15 households on the site had received from all sections of the local community.
“[It] was just unbelievable. Everybody got behind us – the residents, the university, the police and local businesses.
“If they were having problems with us, they wouldn’t have done that. But everyone down here is well behaved and it’s a quiet place to be.
“The women and kids, in particular, are delighted. It’s about the security of the kids being able to carry on going to the same school, [while] the women…can remain among friends – it means such a lot to them.
“They all thought they were going to have to uproot themselves – and, don’t forget, 95 percent of them were born in Preston and grew up here,” John added.
The LDRS understands that the transfer of ownership from the county to the city council will not involve any money changing hands between the two authorities.
Preston City Council agreed to the deal in a private part of its budget-setting meeting late last month, but details have only just been made public. The authority has been responsible for the running of the facility for several years under an agreement with County Hall.
John has been employed as the warden on the site since it opened, looking after its day-to-day management. It is understood that that arrangement will continue, but now the city authority will help set up a co-operative for the residents living there.
John hopes that the new set-up will help bring about what he says are much-needed “major repairs”. The family had previously said that they were not seeing their rental money invested in improvements to bring the site up to modern standards.
“We don’t have the expenses that Preston City Council have had in terms of overheads – so we can save. It wasn’t down to individual people at the council – there were just too many cuts and they haven’t got the staff to do the jobs.
“Now it will be run like a co-operative business – there will be trustees and everyone has a say. We will have a couple of meetings a year and everyone will get the chance to comment [on how the site is being run].
“There is no profit going to be made – any money that comes in will go back into the funds.
“There will be teething problems, I’m sure, but I think it will work out well. We’re just grateful to the city council and to everybody else for their support – and we are really thankful that we can stay,” John said.
Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown said that the agreement reflected the authority’s community wealth-building objectives of encouraging “greater democratic ownership and management of local assets”.
He added: “Co-operatives – business enterprises owned by their members – can play a key role in this. The readiness of the community at Leighton Street to establish their own co-operative to run the site provided a very good fit with the council’s own approach and long-term principles.
“Discussions are now under way between the city council and the Leighton Street Co-operative on the necessary arrangements for the management and operation of the site once the formal transfer is complete.
“We will also be providing some support to establish the co-operative as a legal entity and provide training to its members in key areas of responsibility,” Cllr Brown added.
Lancashire County Council estimated in 2019 that it could save £131,000 by offloading its interest in the site and two others in Lancaster and Hyndburn.
Commenting on the Leighton Street deal, a spokesperson for the authority said: "We are pleased to have come to an agreement with Preston City Council over the transfer of the Leighton Street traveller site and that this will be concluded swiftly."
The county council-controlled site in Lancaster was transferred to Lancaster City Council in November 2020, but there has not yet been a resolution over the one in Hyndburn.
It is district councils like Preston, rather than top-tier authorities such as the county council, which are responsible for ensuring that there are sufficient traveller sites in their areas.
The Leighton Street plot was previously a salt factory which was redeveloped in the mid-1980s to replace a traveller site on London Road after it closed down.