Is Chorley being overlooked for government regeneration funding?
The future of a former bingo hall site in Chorley has sparked a row over whether the borough is at the back of the queue when it comes to scooping the jackpot of government regeneration cash.
Chorley Council is planning to create a temporary car park where the recently-levelled Buzz Bingo building used to stand on Market Street opposite the town hall. The facility is expected to be in operation before the Christmas rush.
As the Chorley Guardian reported last month, there have been calls from market traders for the additional spaces to be made permanent in order to encourage more shoppers – especially those with mobility problems – to visit the town centre.
However, a meeting of the authority’s full council heard that more ambitious plans may be in prospect for the prime plot – if the borough is successful in a future bid for government cash.
The council is considering creating a civic square on the site, which would be used to stage events and could offer some level of parking at other times.
When the bingo hall shut down last year because of the impact of the pandemic, the proposed project became the subject of a pitch to the government’s Future High Streets Fund – but the request was unsuccessful.
Chorley Council is now considering a series of town centre regeneration schemes – including the civic square – that could form the basis of a bid to the Levelling Up Fund, under which up to £20m is available to district authorities for projects designed to reduce inequalities between different parts of the country.
However, Chorley leader Alistair Bradley told councillors that the government’s attitude towards Chorley to date meant that it was not not being levelled up but “held down” – with the Labour politician positing two potential reasons for his claim.
“We are being left to our own devices – and that might be because we borrow and do [things] ourselves.
“The government has to ask itself why it is not investing in Chorley…because our residents should not be published for not having a Conservative MP.
“That’s what I think is happening here – I think money is being distributed on a political basis and the government needs to…put its money where its mouth is and invest in areas that perhaps don’t…always dance to their tune, but do always deliver for their residents,” said Cllr Bradley.
He cited the £25m secured by neighbouring Leyland, represented by Tory MP Katherine Fletcher, under the Town Deal – a funding pot for which Chorley was not even on the list of 101 places invited to bid.
According to the Chorley Council’s calculations, Lancashire’s local authorities have received £149m in government cash via the Future High Street Fund, High Street Heritage Action Zones and Town Deal announcements – but Chorley has not been handed a penny from the three pots.
However, the Conservative opposition group leader on the authority rubbished the suggestion that the borough was being overlooked by the government.
Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Martin Boardman said that the projects that the Labour administration likes to trumpet would not have been possible without cash either directly from Whitehall or from government-backed borrowing facilities.
“The figures speak for themselves – we think Cllr Bradley may have forgotten about the £61m that the council has borrowed from the government, the £3m in funding received for the Primrose Gardens [extra care scheme], the £5.5m for Tatton Gardens [community and care facility] and the £2.5m for Strawberry Fields [digital office park development].
“[Then there is] over £37m in Covid grant funding to enable businesses to survive within Chorley borough and the council to meet its statutory obligations – the list is endless.
“In every scheme that Chorley Council has [initiated] over the past five years…some level [of funding] has always come down from the government and it gets overlooked in the context of delivering the projects,” Cllr Boardman added.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities told the Guardian that Chorley’s bid to the Future High Streets Fund was not considered to provide value for money in terms of the benefits it would bring to the borough.
A spokesperson for the government department added: “Levelling Up is about spreading opportunity, boosting living standards and improving public services so that every part of the UK can thrive, which is why we’re investing billions of pounds to support and regenerate communities.
“The Future High Streets Fund application and assessment process was comprehensive, robust and fair. Bids for the Levelling Up Fund are currently being assessed and successful bids will be announced in due course.”
Cllr Bradley accused the government of “goalpost shifting” in how it assessed the Future High Streets Fund bids.
“They appeared to be using a different rule book to the one we were using to work out [measures such as gross value added],” he told the full council meeting.
Chorley has been placed in the second of three tiers of priority need as part of the Levelling Up Fund. While all bids to the fund will be considered on their own merits, irrespective of ranking, “preference” will be given to the higher ranked areas, according to the government’s guidance.
Chorley did not submit a bid as part of the first round of applications, with Cllr Bradley telling members that the authority was preparing a pitch but was “waiting and seeing what others do and where they go right or wrong”.
A second bidding round is expected to open later this year.
Speaking after the full council meeting, Cllr Bradley called on the government to give Chorley its “fair share of the money available, to ensure we can continue to support our town centre and all the businesses that make it a great place”.
“A successful town centre is vital to the rest of our borough, acting as a focal point in creating jobs and giving residents in the surrounding areas places to visit and enjoy their leisure time,” he said.
The idea of creating a civic square in Chorley dates back to 2016, when the former Oak House and Royal Oak site – and associated shops along Cleveland Street – were acquired by Chorley Council. Attempts were made at the time to find a new location for Buzz Bingo so that the wider area could be redeveloped into a community space, but no suitable premises could be found.
The Oak House and Royal Oak plot was ultimately turned into a temporary car park to offset some of the spaces lost during construction of the Market Walk extension.
Meanwhile, the deputy leader of Chorley Council has mounted a staunch defence of the authority’s debt levels.
A meeting of the full council heard that council borrowing stood at £61.7m at the end of July.
Quizzed by the Conservative opposition about that amount and how it compared to when the Tories last controlled the authority in 2012, Labour’s Peter Wilson said government budget cuts were at the root of the rise in debt in the years since.
“The reality is our funding has been cut by 60 percent by your government, so we have had to bring in extra sources of income. The borrowing we take..is to fund investment projects.
“I am quite happy to stand here and explain why that borrowing is there [and] the benefits it’s brought in terms of jobs [and] improving our town centre – beyond imagination – with a cinema, a Marks and Spencer, a Youth Zone.
“When we hear this from the opposition about borrowing and the fact that they are against it, it means they’re against the Youth Zone, it means they’re against redeveloping the town centre, it means they’re against providing jobs,” Cllr Wilson said.
He told the meeting that the £61.7m figure was the maximum that the council would have to borrow on current forecasts.
However, Chorley opposition group leader Martin Boardman said that it equated to the amount currently owed to the government-backed Public Works Loan Board.
“Your worst case figure is actually reality,” he said.
Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Boardman added: “I think there is a general lack of understanding of where they are as a council and how much debt they owe – that’s what we’re concerned about.”
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