Restaurants, a hotel and housing: Chorley town centre transformation planned as part of 'levelling up' bid

A plush new public space, hotel, community hub and town centre housing could all be on the way to Chorley if the borough is successful in its bid for cash from the government’s Levelling Up Fund.

Wednesday, 20th July 2022, 5:49 pm
Updated Wednesday, 20th July 2022, 8:10 pm

Chorley Council has finalised the pitch that it intends to make in the hope of securing £20m from a nationwide pot set up to improve life in - and reduce inequalities between - different parts of the country.

However, it is estimated that the district’s bold blueprint would cost close to £45m to deliver - with the local authority potentially stumping up the remainder.

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Chorley's proposed new civic square, illustrated with the town hall to the left

The Lancashire Post can reveal that the bid will be based on three schemes which would bring radical changes to several key locations in and around the town centre.

Under the plans, the former bingo hall site opposite the town hall - which has been operating as a temporary car park since late last year - would be transformed into a civic square.

The new sunken space would act as a general meeting place and a focal point for events - and would also feature restaurants, a hotel and possibly some private accommodation. Other retail units and a multi-storey car park would complete the redevelopment of the plot, which also encompasses the more longstanding Cleveland Street car park.

Meanwhile, the council’s Bengal Street depot on the A6 approach to the town centre would be flattened and replaced with a mixed development of apartments and what the Post understands is likely to be ‘colony housing’ - with separate upstairs and downstairs residences. A total of 62 properties have been proposed for the land once it is cleared.

The site of the proposed Chorley civic square opposite the town hall - it had been occupied by a bingo hall until it closed two years ago and has more recently been used as a temporary car park

A new commercial unit is also planned for the corner of the site close to the roundabout junction with Stump Lane.

The bid will also set out plans for major upgrade to the United Reformed Church’s Hollinshead Centre complex - located to the rear of the church itself - to facilitate the community work which is already carried out there. That element of the scheme would include improved links between Union Street and Astley Park, as well as green corridors to the Bengal Street development.

The shape of the bid received cross-party approval when it was discussed in both public and private parts of a Chorley Council meeting on Tuesday evening.

Ahead of the debate, the authority’s Labour leader, Alistair Bradley, told the Post that the civic square centrepiece of the plans had the potential to secure a stable future for the town centre over “the medium to long term” - by striking a balance between the traditional offering that makes Chorley unique and providing something new.

The plan is for the new civic square to provide a place for borough events. Sitting behind it will be resturants, a hotel and possibly other new town centre accommodation.

“Town centres are changing. We’ve seen with the Market Walk [shopping centre] extension that there’s an untapped market for some of that [leisure] provision.

“That doesn't mean that we want to get rid of our individual independent operators,because they do an excellent job, but we need to have the spaces that modern restaurants, leisure businesses or shops want to move into - and we haven’t got enough of that in our town.

“We predicted that there would be a shift to the north and east of the town centre, [given] the requirements for more modern space - and that there would be a shrinking of the wider town centre.

“But, interestingly, what we've seen is that [while] the bottom end of Market Street has become a bit more residential, it has also [provided space for] for start-ups and what I’d call ‘trendies’ - micro operators and some very novel businesses, such as a skateboard shops, and other places that are changing the dynamic.

An example of the type of 'colony housing' that could be built on the proposed Bengal Street development - with stepped access and upstairs and downstairs residences

“It gives us something different, which we have got the [market] for, because we've got quite a young, mobile and fairly affluent population,” Cllr Bradley added.

On the design of the civic square itself, he said that the idea was for it to be “multi-purpose”.

“At times it could be something that looks pretty - it would have fountains that come out from the ground that you can then turn off and walk across - but it could also be used for our Christmas lights switch on, Taste of Chorley and all the events we do. We don't really have that space at the moment.

“Our town centre is not the greenest, so we need it to be greened up a little bit for people to have some dwelling areas - and that’s [the rationale for] the idea of creating the food and beverage units [overlooking] some kind of public open space.”

Cllr Bradley said that while he envisaged the accommodation on the civic square would be a mixture of hotel rooms and apartments, it would ultimately depend on what it could be shown that there was a market for.

He also told the full council meeting that tight timeframes for the application process - and the need to deliver the finished schemes by 2025 - limited the possibility of developing proposals in areas of the borough sway from the town centre, but stressed that suggestions for village-based projects were actively being sought so that they could form the basis of applications for any future funding pots.

The Bengal Street council depot which could be demolished to make way for housing (image: Google)

As part of the localised Levelling Up Investment Fund established by Lancashire County Council back in May, plans for improvements to Chorley’s bus station and the creation of a new tourist information centre at the facility will also be brought forward.

The public will get the chance to have their say on all of Chorley’s levelling up plans as and when they progress.

CASH COMMITMENT QUESTIONED

The leader of the Conservative opposition group on Chorley Council has urged caution over how much of the authority’s own cash is ultimately committed to the borough’s levelling up schemes.

Local authorities bidding to the Levelling Up Fund are obliged to provide so-called “match funding” of at least 10 percent of the cost of their proposal. As Chorley is pitching for the maximum £20m available to district councils, the authority would have to contribute £2m from its coffers.

However, with the price tag for the overall proposed scheme coming in at £45m, the council would also have to budget to cover the outstanding cost.

That prospect sparked concern from Tory group leader Alan Cullens, who told the Post ahead of the council meeting where the bid was discussed that it was vital to ensure that the plans were “financially viable”.

“There has been no cost-benefit analysis and no financial figures [to] back any of this up. We want to know if this is the full cost, [given that prices] are all rising,” said Cllr Cullens, who said that it was also important to determine whether there was “an appetite” for the ideas amongst Chorley residents.

Also speaking before the meeting, council leader Alistair Bradley said that the authority wanted to commit to the proposal because “we know we can do it, we've got an excellent track record of delivery on [similar] projects - and because it needs doing”.

However, the Post understands that in a private session of the meeting - during which commercially sensitive aspects of the bid were discussed - the ruling Labour group accepted a Conservative amendment which meant that while the authority put its weight behind the principle of an estimated £45m package of works, it nevertheless committed to reviewing the financial implications for the council once the government announces whether or not the bid for £20m has been successful.

“At this stage, [that means there is] no cost commitment to the people of Chorley,” Cllr Cullens subsequently told the Post.

Cllr Bradley said that it was a given that the issue would be reviewed in the wake of the government’s decision - because the authority would then be dealing with “the actuality” of the situation. He added that the council could generate an “ongoing return” from some of the proposals, thereby enabling it to make a larger cash contribution upfront.

Chorley is bidding for what will be the second round of allocations from the £4.8bn Levelling Up Fund after sitting out the first window for applications last year. Since that initial round, the borough has been moved from the second into the highest of the three priority categories which the government uses to judge which areas are most in need of ‘levelling up’ support.

The bid had been due to be discussed entirely in private at this week’s full council meeting in order to protect commercially sensitive details about the cost of individual elements of the proposals.

However, following an intervention from Cllr Cullens - who called for the proposed projects to be put into the public domain as soon as possible - the debate was split in two, with the schemes themselves being discussed in open session and the financial matters in private.

HIGH HOPES FOR LOW-RISE HOUSING

Chorley Council’s leader said that the borough will have to be more inventive than some other parts of Lancashire if it wants to encourage town centre living.

Alistair Bradley told the Post that there was an aspiration to bring “quality” residential accommodation to the heart of the borough as part of the proposed Bengal Street development - and also via the possibility of including apartments alongside hotel rooms within the planned civic square scheme opposite the town hall.

“You can't do that in lots of individual flat units above Victorain shops, you've got to do it on a slightly bigger scale,” he explained.

No decision has been taken about whether the dozens of properties proposed for the Bengal Street site would be sold on the open market or provided as social housing.

Either way, Cllr Bradley says that the idea is for the planned apartments and ‘colony housing’ to offer “high density, but fairly low-rise” living.

“That would make it more attractive for people, because it’s not going to be a block of flats, but maybe something a bit more Chorley. The plan is that it's a small town development, but we’ve still got to get a good number of units on there.”

He also held out the prospect that creating new dwellings in the town centre could relieve Chorley of the perennial pressure to deliver housing on green fields in outlying parts of the borough in order to fulfil its minimum new housing numbers.

COMMUNITY SPACE FOR COMMUNITY SPIRIT

Largely hidden behind Chorley United Reformed Church, the Hollinshead Centre is home to a plethora of projects designed to provide practical help and companionship to Chorley residents.

The problem for the church-run facility is that the ageing collection of former Victorian school buildings from which it operates are, in the words of community minister Andy Littlejohns, “long past their best before date”.

He is hoping that a successful Levelling Up Fund bid will help realise the long-held dream of creating a new building to house a dedicated cafe space - along with the refurbishment of the remaining facilities - so that the different schemes can operate alongside each other, but within their own dedicated space.

“At the moment, to get from one bit of the building to another, you have to walk through one of the other rooms - so it makes it quite difficult to use,” Andy explained.

The centre - off Hollinshead Street - currently runs a drop-in session on Wednesday and Thursday mornings for anyone feeling isolated “The Meeting Place”, as it is known, is so popular that it is hoped to open it on a third day from September. Hot meals are also offered from the premises three times a week.

“If you come on a Wednesday morning, there are around 40 people in there - you just can't move, as it’s not that big a space. We know that some people who come to the group are put off now, because it’s a big, crowded, noisy room - so having more breakout spaces which are quiet, would hopefully make it easier for them.

“It will also allow us to run more groups. Once we have got a cafe area, we could base The Meeting Place there and then we might have space maybe for a women’s group, a counsellor and a mobile dentist

“There can be more privacy, or it can just be quieter - and we can increase the range [of services], “ Andy said.

Art groups, Alcoholics Anonymous, a repair cafe, guides and scouts are amongst the groups that currently operate from the Hollinshead Centre.

Chorley Council leader Alistair Bradley said that the borough had “a very engaged community, which wants to do things - but we do not sometimes have the space to accommodate them”.

“They need to [be able to] work more closely together and to share a common space - we want to see that.”

The current mix of 100-year-old buildings at the Hollinshead Centre (image: Chorley United Reformed Church)
The proposed revamp of the buildings which house community projects at the Hollinshead Centre, behind Chorley United Reformed Church
Chorley Council leader Alistair Bradley says that the borough's levelling up bid is deliverable - and needed
Conservative opposition group leader Alan Cullens expressed concern over the level of council cash being committed to the plans