Chorley's £20m town centre facelift is back on after Levelling Up Fund boost
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The borough’s first bid for the cash, in July 2022, was based on a pitch to create a multi-purpose civic square, opposite the town hall, build an estate of innovative new homes on a former council depot and regenerate community facilities at a local church.
Chorley Council had been planning to submit a revised proposal during the third and final tranche of applications for a share of the cash pot, but Whitehall has instead dished out the remaining money to what it regarded as “high quality” - but ultimately unsuccessful - bids from round two, which was heavily oversubscribed.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) understands that the aim is for the borough is to deliver the trio of schemes that it had initially proposed, but that conversations will now be had with the government about any changes since the bid was first submitted - not least the fact that the council has already started work on the housing project on its Bengal Street deposit, using cash from an alternative funding stream for the regeneration of brownfield sites.
While £20m was always the amount that had potentially been on offer from the Levelling Up Fund, Chorley’s proposed package was costed last year at almost £45m - with the council proposing to bridge the gap, pending further consideration after any government contribution had been confirmed.
The authority’s Labour leader, Alistair Bradley, said that while it was disappointing that the initial bid had been rejected, he was pleased that the benefits of the proposal had now been “recognised” by ministers - adding that it would help to ensure Chorley has a “long-term, 21st-century town centre”.
“There's a lot happening in our town centre - with the police station moving and [plans for the former] magistrates’ court. It’s a time of change, so we need to be alive to that - and this is a great opportunity to influence some of that change.
"The programme will reshape and refresh the town centre as well as providing long term benefits such as regeneration of these areas, creation of community and multi-use spaces for residents to enjoy, accommodation, business and employment opportunities - all of which will support Chorley's economy.
“We’ve spent more than this [Levelling Up] money already ourselves - but it's helpful when the government puts some our way as well,” Cllr Bradley added.
'THIS ISN'T A GAME OF MONOPOLY'
Conservative opposition group leader Alan Cullens last year said that it was vital to ensure that Chorley's Levelling Up plans were "financially viable" - given that the council would be stumping up more than double the amount committed by the government.
Speaking after it was announced that the bid had now been successful, Cllr Cullens told the LDRS that he still had worries about the authority's cash commitment to the proposals - and how it would be financed.
"Whilst we welcome any investment by the Conservative government in Chorley, we are deeply concerned over the levels of borrowing that the Labour-run authority is racking up.
"In the last government report [on the subject], Chorley was 19th in the table for debt versus investment - and it looks like they will rise further up the table, which is concerning for residents. Interest and debt repayments are putting pressure on the day-to-day budgets.
"Property prices are still falling, so the asset prices which support this debt are diminishing.
"I am also concerned about the capacity of officers to add another significant project to those already approved. This could lead to further added costs.
"At [Tuesday's full council meeting], I will be calling on the authority to invite other council experts to review this strategy, which looks like a Monopoly game of land-on-a-property-and-buy-it," Cllr Cullens added.
WHAT WILL BE HAPPENING WHERE?
The former bingo hall site opposite the town hall - which has been operating as a temporary car park for almost two years - is set to be transformed into a civic square.
The new sunken space will act as a general meeting place and a focal point for events, like the Christmas lights switch-on. According to the original plans, it will also feature restaurants, a hotel and possibly some private accommodation, depending on what there is market demand for.
Other retail units and a multi-storey car park will complete the redevelopment of the plot, which also encompasses the more longstanding Cleveland Street car park.
Bengal Street housing
Site investigation and remediation work has already begun on the council’s Bengal Street depot, where it was proposed as part of the Levelling Up Fund bid last year that 62 dwellings would be created once the building - on the edge of the town centre - had been flattened.
The scheme has progressed in spite of the bid initially being rejected by the government - because the council secured another grant for the project.
It was intended that the development would be a mixture of apartments and so-called ‘colony housing’ - with separate upstairs and downstairs residences. A new commercial unit was also planned for the corner of the site, close to the roundabout junction with Stump Lane.
The LDRS understands that the exact shape of the project is likely to be defined by the results of the ongoing investigations and so may yet change from last year’s blueprint. The original bid did not specify whether the homes would be sold on the open market or provided as social housing.
The Hollinshead Centre
The original bid set out plans for a major upgrade to the United Reformed Church’s Hollinshead Centre complex - located to the rear of the church itself - to facilitate the community work that is done there. It will include improved links between Union Street and Astley Park, as well as ‘green corridors’ through to the Bengal Street development.
The ageing collection of former Victorian school buildings that make up the site have begun to limit the ambitions of its operators.
Last year, community minister Andy Littlejohns told the LDRS that he hoped any Levelling Up cash could be used to create a new building to house a dedicated cafe space - along with the refurbishment of the remaining facilities - so that the different projects could operate alongside each other, but within their own dedicated space.
The centre - off Hollinshead Street - currently runs drop-in sessions for anyone feeling isolated and hot meals are also offered from the premises several times a week. Art groups, Alcoholics Anonymous, a repair cafe, guides and scouts are amongst the groups that operate from the facility.
PLAN A OR PLAN B?
Cllr Bradley says the fact that the Chorley Council has pressed on with considering how to make some its proposed projects work in the absence of Levelling Up funding means that discussions will be needed about the exact direction they take - and how and when they will be delivered - now that government cash is on the table.
He told the LDRS that talks with Whitehall would focus on the detail of the schemes - including the kinds of outputs that the government will want to see in return for its investment.
“It’s not like we have stopped still and have done nothing [since the original bid was rejected]. We’ve progressed and got on and developed our plans, gearing up for something perhaps next year. But life comes along and now we have this opportunity - so let’s grasp it with both hands.”
It is not clear when the government will expect the latest beneficiaries of the Levelling Up Fund to have their projects completed. For successful first and second round bidders - who have had longer to play the groundwork - there was an already tight deadline set of March 2025.
MP’s DISAPPOINTMENT TURNS TO DELIGHT
Chorley MP and Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle says that he was “deeply saddened” to see the borough miss out on the second round of Levelling Up funding at the start of the year - and conveyed his disappointment at the highest levels of government.
“I met the Secretary of State for Levelling Up and raised this with the Prime Minister, to outline why I believe Chorley’s application would bring huge benefits to the town - and why I think the government were wrong to reject the council’s application. I am pleased that they listened to my arguments and awarded the money,” Sir Lindsay told the LDRS.
“By working with the council, we will now see significant investment in our town which will support traders, help attract more visitors and ensure that we have a vibrant town centre in the future.
“This will help build on the excellent work that has already been done in the town, such as the Market Walk extension, which has [brought] a new cinema, restaurants and shops, coupled with investment in our covered market and car parks.
“Given the challenging economic climate this award has come at a critical time and I look forward to seeing more detailed plans being brought forward in the near future which should provide an exciting future for Chorley, added Sir Lindsay, who was also thanked by Cllr Bradley for banging the drum for the boruogh’s Levelling Up Fund bid.