I can't believe the council didn't listen to us over Preston's Ashton Park

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Residents opposed to the redevelopment of Ashton Park in Preston say their collective voice has been given “less weight” than organisations that were consulted over the project.

They were reacting after Preston City Council’s planning committee gave the green light to a scheme which will see a 3G pitch and sports hub facility built on the Pedders Lane site, along with a 120-space car park.

A majority of the authority’s councillors had already backed the principle of the £9.7m project, but the planning decision means work can now actually begin.

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Around 80 percent of people who attended public consultation events or completed questionnaires were “against much of the proposed development”, according to the city council itself.  The plans also prompted the formation of the 1,200-strong Fight For Ashton Park group and sparked a 2,200-signature petition.

The planning committee heard from Ashton ward councillor Liz Atklins that the biggest bone of local contention - the all-weather 3G pitch  - had been a “poster boy” for the project and so had proved stubbornly difficult to jettison.

"It’s only in recent times it’s become clear that…some of the stakeholders in this scheme would not continue to back [it] if the 3G pitch [was] removed,” said Cllr Atkins, one of the minority of councillors to vote against the scheme when it was considered by full council in February.

She said that she wished the pivotal role of the synthetic surface had been “spelled out earlier” in the process when the plans - financed largely by the government’s Levelling Up Fund - were published last summer.

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The business case for the project lists a number of stakeholders dating back to the creation of a masterplan for Ashton Park back in 2018, including the Sir Tom Finney Football Academy and The Football Foundation.  Preston City Council says the now approved scheme is reliant on “match funding” from the latter, although that was not guaranteed at the time full council made the decision to back the project two months ago.

On the steps of the town hall, a group of Ashton Park campaigners quizzed cabinet member for environment and community safety Freddie Bailey, who  came out to meet them following the planning committee’s approval of the scheme.  

Michele Chapman asked:  “Why do some stakeholders carry more weight than others?  Why do they have a bigger say than thousands of residents?”

Michele Chapman is one of the residents who wanted to block controversial football-led plans for Ashton Park Michele Chapman is one of the residents who wanted to block controversial football-led plans for Ashton Park
Michele Chapman is one of the residents who wanted to block controversial football-led plans for Ashton Park | National World

Cllr Bailey said individual councillors will have made a “judgement” on the issue.

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“You might have a councillor who'll see the [information presented] and say, ‘I'll listen to the stakeholders - the organisations -...more than the general public.  [But] some councillors will have…thought, ‘Yes, the scheme might be good, but I’m purely focusing on the consultation - and then they have voted a different way [as a result],” said Cllr Bailey, who has cabinet responsibility for the plans. 

Another Ashton resident, Michelle Smith, said that the inclusion of six grass pitches in the scheme - to replace those lost to drainage issues over the last decade - “should have been enough”, without the need for a 3G surface.  

However, Cllr Bailey said his opinion - and that of the other councillors who supported the development - was that “we can do better”. 

He also stressed that the sports hub building would be available for “some really good community benefits” - and that the 3G surface was needed to ensure the overall project paid for itself.

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Full council was told in February that a watered-down alternative - under which there was no all-weather pitch and the sports hub was reduced form two storeys to just one - would have cost the town hall £153,000 a year to operate. 

Michele Smith told the Lancashire Post she was dissatisfied with how the authority had responded to nearly 200 official objections as part of the planning process.

“They said they changed a path [after comments from Sport England]   I didn't complain about a path - I complained about a 3G pitch and people parking all over the place,” she said.

The size of the car park was also reduced from an initially-proposed 150 spaces under the revised plans.

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Meanwhile, Fight for Ashton Park founder member James Walmsley said the park was being sacrificed for a "major sport" that is only " a minor passtime". Prior to the reduction in car park size - and not including the grass pitches - the scheme was estimated to take up 14.8 percent of Ashton Park's surface area.

Those questioning Cllr Bailey during the 10-minute exchange said that while they disagreed with him, they appreciated him engaging with them over the issue.

‘FABULOUS FACILITIES’

Speaking to the Post after the committee, Pete Mason, from Sir Tom Finney Football Club - who spoke in support of the scheme at the meeting - said he was “very pleased” with the outcome.

“The city of Preston desperately needs additional first class sporting facilities - in this case, football - for use by the hundreds if not thousands of children, young people and adults who want to participate in football, either recreationally or competitively, in a safe and secure environment [and] who haven’t been able to due to a lack of facilities.  

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“Preston has the benefit of funding for these improvements and this development highlights the fabulous facilities that can be made available for the use of all,” Pete added.

John Griffiths, who manages one of the local Springfields Football Club’s under-11s boys’ teams -said it was "fantastic news for sports teams, but also developing the park for all users".

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