Ashton Park football plans get the go-ahead once again after public debate - but residents' anger remains

Controversial plans for new sports facilities on Preston’s Ashton Park have been approved for a second time, amid acrimonious scenes at the council meeting where the decision was made.
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Members of the public who had turned up at the town hall were told they risked being removed from the building if they continued to interrupt the debate.

Preston City Council had already approved the principle of the development – which includes the installation of a 3G football pitch, two-storey sports pavilion and 150-space car park – at a behind-closed-doors meeting of the authority back in December. The privacy was due to the discussion of commercially-sensitive information.

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However, after the threat of a legal challenge from a residents’ group formed to oppose the plans, the council opted to reconsider the matter in public – but many of the locals who came to listen to the fresh deliberations were left unimpressed. Some even walked out of the public gallery before the decision was taken.

Locals were back at Preston Town Hall (inset) to try to block the plans for Ashton ParkLocals were back at Preston Town Hall (inset) to try to block the plans for Ashton Park
Locals were back at Preston Town Hall (inset) to try to block the plans for Ashton Park

Much of the discussion hinged on whether there was a possible compromise option to the £9.7m scheme on the table. However, deputy Labour council leader Martyn Rawlinson argued that because the cash was coming from the £20m Levelling Up Fund grant Preston had been awarded last year, any changes to the project could jeopardise the other schemes that formed the overall package of proposals – – including the replacement Old Tram Bridge and improvements to Waverley, Grange and Moor parks.

“We don’t know…what the government will do. We can’t know that, because we’d have to go to them [first] and say we need to change the scheme – [so] until then, we don’t know,” Cllr Rawlinson said.

“Don’t risk all that money. Support this scheme, it’s a really good scheme [that is] much-needed by certain people in Preston who [would benefit from] these facilities.”

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The Liberal Democrats had proposed an alternative option – which had been assessed by the council, but was not the one recommended by officers – of replacing the 3G pitch with an equivalent grass pitch, to add to the six others that are part of the plans, while also reducing the sports pavilion to a single storey.

Deputy Lib Dem group leader Neil Darby said: “Any community asset has to bring along the community with it.

“[This alternative] maintains the legacy of Ashton Park [and] most of the pros of the [original] proposal,” which, he added, included rectifying the drainage issues that had beset the current grass pitches.

However, cabinet member for environment and community safety Freddie Bailey said the Lib Dems were not proposing a compromise, but simply “a bad project”. He told the meeting that the watered-down plan failed to address the lack of all-weather pitches in Preston, sacrificed the social benefits of the scheme – and would cost the council up to £153,000 a year to operate.

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Members were told that the full-fat proposal was cost-neutral because the revenue generated from the facilities would pay for their upkeep.

Tensions flared when David Borrow, one of the ward councillors for neighbouring Lea and Larches, said that there was a group of people “strongly opposed to any investment and development of Ashton Park.

"It’s not been about, ‘We don’t want this bit’, [but that they] don’t want any of it.”

Shouts of “not true” and “another lie” rained down from the public gallery. After a further exchange, one man shouted: “Tell the truth, you lying b******s,” before walking out. Shortly afterwards, he was joined in leaving by Fight for Ashton Park founder member James Walmsley, who objected to claims made by Cllr Borrow about his conduct at a ward surgery meeting in January.

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Chief executive Adrian Phillips warned that the gallery would be cleared if the public observing the debate did not remain quiet.

Conservative opposition group leader Sue Whittam said that the council was in an “awkward place”.

“We can’t risk losing that levelling up money…there is still that risk,” she said, explaining that she would be abstaining in the vote.

Ashton ward councillor Elizabeth Atkins - who voted against the 3G plans - said that while those opposed to the project would like to see it “go away” completely, “the majority of people would be more than happy to compromise”.

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She asked why such an offer had not been made, adding: “Because if it had, we wouldn’t be here today.”

Her ward colleague, James Hull, said he recognised that “the football lobby is a strong lobby and I appreciate…that these people need to have more football grounds”.

However, he said some were concerned that the scheme was too “football-centric” and added that the council could not “just run roughshod over the interests of other people” who might want facilities for other sports.

Responding to separate concerns that the 3G pitch would be unaffordable for some youngsters, Cllr Bailey stressed that the grass pitches would remain free - and added that the all-weather facility would largely be used by clubs, which often subsidise the membership of children whose families would otherwise struggle to cover the cost.

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Lib Dem Debbie Shannon said that the proposal was “not allowing people to coalesce”.

“It's not an all-or-nothing issue,” she added, describing her party’s suggestion as “something that everybody can get on board with…[and] co-operate around”.

However, the Lib Dem amendment to the plans was voted down and the original 3G-led proposal was once again approved - with 18 votes in favour, nine against and six abstentions.

Planning permission will still be required from the council’s independent planning committee before the project can begin.

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Speaking to the Lancashire Post after the meeting, Fight for Ashton Park member Ann Cowell said she was almost “too overwhelmed” to respond to the outcome.

“I am not a NIMBY she said – I just wanted what was right.”

However, local junior league football coach John Griffiths welcomed the decision: “This is a fantastic opportunity for the area - not only does it bring footfall into the park area, but also local businesses should benefit.

“Local sports teams will benefit – and children from the area may actually get games on at last.”


More than 2,000 people signed a petition against the Ashton Park revamp, with the Fight for Ashton Park group totalling over 1,200 members.

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Outlining what he claimed as the benefits of the scheme, Cllr Bailey said that the “centrepiece” was the pavilion building, which will “provide a platform for community groups”.

“This investment will be good for dog-walkers and wheelchair users. It will also be good for people to have a kickabout with their mates…[and] for people who just want to have a brew and a catch-up with their friends.

“It will…benefit young people who want to access services…[and] local residents [by] building better community cohesion, reducing antisocial behaviour and also increas[ing]…the community activities [on the park].

“This project will create a park [that] everyone in Ashton and wider Preston can enjoy,” Cllr Bailey said.