Ashton Park football plans 'could be scaled back' in the face of public opposition
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It comes after locals accused Preston City Council of incorrectly suggesting that government funding rules meant it had no room for manoeuvre over the design of the scheme.
The authority has proposed installing a new 3G football pitch and creating a sports hub building – featuring changing facilities, toilets, a café and rooms for community use – along with a 150-space car park. All of the additions would be made on what is currently open grassland in the centre of the Pedders Lane site.
The town hall’s blueprint for the park was one of the the projects that formed the basis of the city’s successful £20m bid for regeneration cash from the government’s Levelling Up Fund.
However, the potential overhaul has come in for criticism from a group of residents who have formed a campaign group opposing the plans in their current form, which would see almost 15 percent of Ashton Park’s surface area taken up by the new facilities.
Cllr Freddie Bailey, Preston City Council’s cabinet member for environment and community safety, has now told the Lancashire Post that he is open to exploring whether there is any government flexibility over the shape and scale of the project.
But he also warned that any wholesale changes could have consequences for other aspects of the Ashton Park vision – as well as for separate schemes for which the authority has received Levelling Up funding, including a replacement for the long-closed Old Tram Bridge in Avenham Park.
Cllr Bailey was speaking just 24 hours after being grilled by locals about the £9.5m Ashton Park plans during a meeting of the full council.
James Walmsley, a founding member of the “Fight For Ashton Park” group, said that he did not feel that those who spoke at the meeting “got an answer about anything”.
However, he told the Post that his biggest gripe was the suggestion he says was made by the council at a consultation event over the summer that if the proposal for Ashton Park was not accepted, “then we lose everything” – and the Levelling Up cash for the site would have to be handed back to Whitehall.
At the time, the council said that the comment had been made in response to a call to spend the money elsewhere and that, because it had been awarded for Ashton Park, Preston “could risk losing the funding if it isn’t spent in line with the proposals that were put forward to the government”.
But James says that campaigners have since found government guidance which shows that Levelling Up Fund projects are permitted to be revised – in some cases without even needing government approval.
In advice seen by the Post, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) says that by making a so-called “project adjustment request”, councils can seek permission from the government to change “outputs, outcomes [and] delivery” in relation to schemes for which they have been given grant money.
If the change would amount to a variation of less than 30 percent from the original vision, local authorities can simply advise the DLUHC of their intention – provided that their own statutory finance officer confirms that the revised project would still provide “good value for money”.
For a greater than 30 percent change, the DLUHC would have to assess the proposed amendments and agree to them before they could go ahead.
James says that those rules give Preston City Council all the flexibility it needs to come up with a proposal that would address the concerns of locals who do not want such a large area of Ashton Park’s surface to be sacrificed.
He told the Post that residents were “not opposed to football” – nor to another part of the plan which would treble the number of grass football pitches on the site to six.
“We just want to knock the 3G pitch on the head. With the sports hub pavilion, it’s not that we don’t want it, we just don’t want it in the middle of the park – and neither do we want the new car park there either.
“And the only reason that it’s got to be there is because it’s a stipulation to put it next to the 3G pitch [in order] to stop the toxic plastic [and] rubber crumb [from the artificial surface] getting onto the grass of the park,” James said.
He added that the sports hub building could go on the site of the disused pavilion that currently stands on the fringes of the park, noting that a soon-to-be relocated council compound behind the derelict structure would provide even more space for the new facility, which he said could emulate the successful Lowther Pavilion in Lytham and be used for community events and shows.
The need for a larger car park, James said, could be met by extending the existing one, rather than creating a new facility in the middle of the grass.
As for the 3G pitch, he claimed that it would be better suited to Moor Park, which, along with Waverley Park, is also receiving a tranche of Levelling Up funding to enhance its own sports and leisure areas.
“If they had the will, they could [do that]. They could just [install] the grass pitches on Ashton Park, which is surrounded by houses.
“Plus, Moor Park has already got a big car park, it’s already had a lot of concrete poured onto it for the skate park and it’s already got a big building on it. I’m just saying that it’s an alternative.
“Let’s sort something out that's acceptable for all – that's all we want,” James said.
Cllr Bailey told the Post that such sweeping changes would be akin to something approaching a “90 percent” shift from the original plans – and so would undoubtedly require government authorisation.
He also stressed that the different elements of the proposed Ashton Park project “feed off each other” – and so it was “not as simple” as just taking the 3G pitch out of the equation.
“The idea of the whole scheme is that the money raised from the proposed astroturf pitch and the café in the sports pavilion will help pay for the maintenance of the park itself, the new grass football pitches and also of the [pavilion itself].
“If we got rid of the astroturf pitch…would we be able to run the pavilion? Our revenue [day-to-day] budget…is obviously very tight.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s out of the question, though, just to reassure residents,” Cllr Bailey said.
He also emphasised that no decisions had yet been taken and that a report outlining the results of public consultation into the Ashton Park plans, which took place during the latter part of the summer, was still being drafted.
The final proposal is likely to go before the next meeting of the full council in December and would also then require the green light from the city council’s own independent planning committee.
Cllr Bailey said that the tight timescales for spending Levelling Up cash once it has been awarded – most projects have to be completed by March 2025 – meant that the authority was having to work so fast that the Ashton Park proposal had not yet been fully costed and remained in the design phase.
He did not close the door on the kind of changes that the Fight for Ashton Park group might like to see – but warned that any rethink could have a knock-on effect and probably hinged on the attitude that the government took to any suggested amendments.
“There is the option of saying…we’ll scale back the project [and] we’ll get rid of the astroturf. I don’t know what that would look like at this moment in time, but if we did scale it down, then we would have to go back to the government – and that’s when it gets into a grey area.
“The government could just say a blanket ‘no’. And does that put the other park [renovation plans] in jeopardy? Does it even put the tram bridge at risk?
“We don’t know how ‘nice’ the government are going to be [in that situation] Are they going to say [you can just reduce the scope of the Ashton scheme] but give us the [unspent] the money back?
“The people who are dead against the project [would be] happy with that, but then people on the other side [of the debate], who want the 3G pitch, they’re not going to be happy.
“But we’ve got to strike a balance – and we just don’t know at this moment in time.
“When I’m presented with the business case and the report about the consultation – and when we’ve got the [overall] report ready to go to full council – it can be shared with all the elected members and then we can make an informed decision,” Cllr Bailey said.
More than 2,200 people have signed a petition opposing the current plans for Ashton Park, but a 350-strong group – called “Yes to Development on Ashton Park” – has also been formed to back the proposal, with junior league football coaches having previously told the Post that more all-weather training and playing space is desperately needed in Preston.
Residents lined up to quiz Cllr Bailey during the time reserved for public questions at the latest full council meeting, with each speaker allowed a pre-announced question and off-the-cuff follow-up. Here’s a flavour of the posers and his responses on…
Mrs. J. Argall: “We’re currently in a climate crisis. How can you equate cutting down trees and digging up grass …to the city and the country’s commitment to reducing our carbon footprint?”
Cllr Bailey: “We are still in the design process. I want to try and reduce [the impact] as much as possible, but there will be net biodiversity gain on Ashton Park – and that will include the planting of new trees and soft landscaping.”
Mrs. S Holmes: "A 3G pitch involves several tonnes of virgin plastic on its surface and industrial quantities of microplastic infill. Plastic particles inevitably migrate into the environment during use [and] it all has to be replaced every 8-10 years. Why is Preston City Council adding to the world's plastics problem?”
Cllr Bailey: “This council has worked very closely with the Football Foundation to ensure the impact of the artificial pitch, if we go ahead with it, is minimised. The Football Foundation supports sustainable practices of 3G grass pitch delivery, [including] a risk management measure which will help prevent the loss of microplastics into the environment, as well a significantly reducing the amount of rubber crumb used in artificial pitches.”
…safety and accessibility
Mrs. M. Ellison: “We already have cars from the [nearby] clinic, nursery, Dig In and Let’s Grow Preston – but these are all in one part of the park. You are proposing to bring 150+ cars onto the main part of the park…how is that safe, enjoyable and accessible to all?”
Cllr Bailey: “We’ve not finalised the designs in terms of the size of the car park. [150 spaces] was just an idea of what it could potentially look like. Obviously, we want to ensure that the car park – if we do go ahead with the proposal – is big enough so that it doesn’t encourage people to park [in] neighbouring streets, but also not too big that it takes a lot of the park space. It’s being taken [through] the design and that will be fed back to us as a council – but I can absolutely assure you that we are going to do everything we can to try and strike a balance between that.”
…Preston North End’s involvement
Mrs. S. Winterbottom: “Since the Ashton Park consultation has ended, why has Preston City Council asked Preston North End Community Trust to undertake a survey to establish if local football clubs would be interested in using the proposed new 3G pitch on Ashton Park?”
Cllr Bailey: “Preston North End Community and Education Trust have been a part of the consultation process from the start as they are a key stakeholder who [contribute] very important community health and wellbeing outcomes for the city that aren’t just football-related. Due to the strict deadlines set by central government, we’ve had to work efficiently and effectively to collate all the information together, so that we as elected members of this council can make an informed decision.
“[Through the trust’s] close links with football clubs across the city and the area, they’ve been assisting us to link up [with] football clubs to inform [our] business plan [about] usage of the pitches. That business plan will be vital so that councillors can then vote on that final decision.”
Mrs. S. Winterbottom: “Is it not the case that you are still unsure of the need for another 3G pitch in the area and that if the facility is built, Preston North End Community Trust will operate it [and] it would, in fact, be the main football academy that would have the most use? Is it not really that the community will lose out and Preston North End would have [most] use of the facility?”
Cllr Bailey: “We have been…collaborating with them [because] they are a key stakeholder..and they are working with us, they are helping inform that business plan, because, as a responsible council, we will only make an informed decision when we have all that information. If the findings for that business case aren’t as good as were expected – or they are better – then it helps us to make that informed decision as a council as a whole.
“If it’s then built, you talk about…will Preston North End use it for other things – obviously, that’s a separate discussion, because we will own the building and then we will decide whether we either lease it out [or] run it ourselves.
“I want to assure you that if we do [go through with] the proposals and…we build it and then Preston North End Community Trust submit an application to run it as an academy, I’m very sure that’s not in our favour and [not favourable] to that community use.
“That comes way down the line, but you will be well aware that we want this facility – if we do build it – to be of great community value.”
…asking the community’s opinion
Mrs. A. Cowell: “[The] Ashton Park proposal never received any prior community engagement. Does the council have a statement or policy with regard to community engagement and can you explain at what point within a new project the council should engage and how that is actioned?”
Cllr Bailey: “The council does not have a statement or policy with regards to community engagement, but…in 2017, the council commenced the development of the current masterplan for Ashton Park and then, in 2018, a number of stakeholders were consulted...[including] Let’s Grow Preston, Dig In…and the Football Foundation. The feedback from this consultation process was used to help create the design and the masterplan which then was used to submit the bid to the Levelling Up Fund.
“A wider consultation back in 2018 was not [proposed], just because the funding was not in place then. Once we received confirmation that the Levelling Up bid was successful, three community engagement meetings were also set up as part of the consultation process, which were incredibly well attended by residents. There was also an online consultation which ran from 25th July…the outcome of [which] will be used as a guide to the final designs of the park [which full council will decide upon].
“I know that some of the residents have been disappointed by the speed at which the consultation has been delivered, but unfortunately we have had to adhere to the strict government deadlines that they have set.”