Levelling Up Fund: Preston's Old Tram Bridge to be replaced and city parks revamped in £20m boost - but Penwortham and Chorley miss out
and live on Freeview channel 276
It will form part of a package of regeneration projects, focusing on parks, transport and the public realm. They include upgrades to some of the city’s most-cherished green spaces and the creation of so-called “active travel” infrastructure to promote walking and cycling.
As the most eye-catching of the plans, the replacement bridge – estimated in 2021 to cost around £6m – will enable the restoration of a connection between Avenham Park and Penwortham that was abruptly cut over safety fears almost four years ago. A near 3,000-signature petition last year pushed for the bridge to be included in Preston’s levelling up bid.
Lancashire as a whole has secured £200m of government cash to fund a plethora of projects designed to reduce inequalities between different parts of the country – including £50m towards the estimated £100m cost of the Eden Project North in Morecambe and £49.6m for a raft of transport improvements in East Lancashire, spearheaded by the county council.
The historic tram bridge crossing has been the focus of a long-running campaign calling for its reinstatement after the structure closed in February 2019 when an inspection found that it was at risk of sudden collapse.
The other schemes that have now been given the green light focus upon delivering sports facilities at Ashton Park and heritage, event and visitor attractions at Moor Park.
Infrastructure improvements are planned for Avenham Park, while sport, community use and access will be enhanced at Waverley Park. Access arrangements will also be upgraded as part of the re-opening of the Interpretation Centre in Grange Park.
Additionally, the bid set out plans to create cycling corridors, running from east to west and north to south across the city. The aim of those schemes is to establish good connections to bus and train services, employment sites and residential areas for those who travel on two wheels – and to tempt more people to do so.
Improved cycling links to the replacement tram bridge were also proposed, along with associated public space upgrades on Friargate between Ringway and Cheapside.
The bid money will also be used to create three “mobility hubs” at the city’s railway and bus stations and Avenham car park. Collectively, they will be designed to promote and support active travel and use of electric cars.
Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown said he was “over the moon” at the news that the necessary cash had been secured.
“With the timescales given, we had to [submit] something that was realistic, but that we felt was quite transformative.
“We did understand the strong feeling around the tram bridge and so we included that in the bid and are delighted that it will finally be resolved, which is very positive.
“Even more money going into our parks is something we have been seeking for some time. It’s going to improve [those] parks in some of the more deprived areas of Preston, so people have opportunities for sport, participation and enjoying the natural environment,” Cllr Brown said.
He added that he hoped the cycling infrastructure improvements being funded through bid could facilitate the introduction of local cycle and electric scooter hire schemes, putting Preson en route to becoming a “genuine zero-carbon city”.
“We can’t tackle the climate emergency by skirting around the edges.”
There will also be a specific project to improve bus journeys between Preston and the new National Cyber Force campus, which will be built in Samlesbury.
However, in his appreciation of the financial boost, the Labour leader did add the “caveat” that the one-off Levelling Up Fund investment – like the £20.9m the city received from the Towns Fund two years ago – would not replace the recurrent funding lost as a result of austerity over more than a decade.
“So even though this is extremely good news, it’s a plea to government again that we are resourced back to the levels that we had pre-2010.”
Like most of the successful bidders, Preston will be expected by the government to complete all of its schemes by March 2025.
However, there is no such pressure on the city’s neighbours in Chorley and South Ribble – both of whom lost out on their bids.
WHAT NOW FOR CHORLEY AND SOUTH RIBBLE?
Chorley, like Preston, had been ranked in the highest of the three priority categories used as part of the bid assessment process, having been moved up from category 2 in the first round.
However, that fact was still not enough to persuade the government to pitch in £20m to an overall £45m package of proposals that would have seen a plush new public square, restaurants and hotel created on the former site of the Buzz Bingo hall in the town centre, along with the redevelopment of a council depot – and its replacement with housing – and the creation of a new community facility.
The borough had proposed that the old bingo site – currently in use as a temporary car park – be turned into a civic square that would act as a general meeting place and a focal point for events. It was also set to feature restaurants, a hotel and possibly some private accommodation.
Other retail units and a multi-storey car park would have completed 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 was to be flattened and replaced with a mixed 62-dwelling development of apartments and ‘colony housing’ – with separate upstairs and downstairs residences.
The bid will also 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 which is already carried out there.
Chorley Council leader Alistair Bradley said that while he was disappointed that the government had not seen the merits of the trio of projects, the decision did not mean it was the end of the road for any or all of the planned schemes.
“We had a good bid and it remains ready to go tomorrow – all we need is some assistance.
Different parts of it could come forward with different funding mechanisms, but obviously that’s more difficult than getting one lump of money. At the moment, borrowing is also expensive, so it’s about timing.
“But these are schemes we want to do – we may end up doing them in phases, but the things that we [have proposed] are there for very good reasons. It’s not just because the money was on offer,” Cllr Bradley said.
That, he fears, may not be the case with schemes in other parts of the country which have been successful in their bids – and the Labour politician says Chorley will be “standing ready” if any of those other projects fail to materialise.
“That’s not to belittle anybody else’s projects, but I do find it a bit odd that [places like Chorley] who have a proven track record of delivery and who use less money to achieve more, are at times ignored.
“It’s all done for political reasons, in my view – it’s skewed towards the [government’s] political targets in 18 months or two years’ time.
“In the meantime, we’ll carry on levelling ourselves up.”
Similar stoicism was on display over the border in South Ribble. It had been placed in the lowest priority category, causing council leader Paul Foster to question whether it was even worth bidding.
The authority did ultimately make a submission, centred on two projects that it already had in the pipeline for Penwortham – a blueprint for new-look shopping streets and a major new sporting complex at the existing Vernon Carus Sports Club, off Factory Lane in the town.
In 2021, the authority unveiled ambitious plans to create what deputy council leader Mick Titherington described as a “centre of excellence” for sport – including a new two-storey pavilion building, a 3G pitch, two multi-use games areas, the refurbishment or rebuilding of the boxing club and the construction of a new bowls shelter.
The plans also feature options for a new BMX track, upgraded parking facilities and new viewing points and picnic spots overlooking the Lake Wood Reservoir on the plot – as well as a storage area for equipment to be used for water sports.
The borough council had sought £9.6m for the Vernon Carus element of the scheme, including £2m to form better connections to the site by bike.
A total of £5m was requested for long-mooted plans to transform the Liverpool Road shopping area into a green oasis, along with reshaping the neighbourhood centres in Middleforth and Kingsfold.
Reacting to the rejection of the plans by the government, Labour council leader Paul Foster said that authority was “committed” to the projects nevertheless.
“We will find the funding for them – we’re going to let this hold us back. We are desperately disappointed for our community, but the fight goes on.
“We’ll do whatever we need to do to ensure that the community is invested in appropriately,” he said.
But Cllr Foster also questioned the premise of using a competitive bidding process in the name of levelling up.
“Our bids were really robust – and the whole concept of one council having to bid against its neighbouring authorities isn’t levelling up, it’s anything but. It’s fundamentally flawed.”
Councils like Chorley and South Ribble will get the chance to bid again after the government confirmed that there will be a third round of allocations from the fund.
The £2.1bn worth of investments announced on Wednesday follows £1.7bn of schemes that were approved in the first round in 2021. The government has previously pledged that the fund will distribute a total of £4.8bn for use on projects designed to reduce inequalities between different parts of the country.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said of the Levelling Up Fund announcement: “Through greater investment in local areas, we can grow the economy, create good jobs and spread opportunity everywhere. That’s why we are backing a number of projects with new transformational
funding to level up local communities in the North West.
“By reaching even more parts of the country than before, we will build a future of optimism and pride in people’s lives and the places they call home.”
Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove added that the approved schemes would revitalise communities “that have historically been overlooked but are bursting with potential”.
“This new funding will create jobs, drive economic growth, and help to restore local pride. We are delivering on the people’s priorities, levelling up across the UK to ensure that no matter where you are from, you can go as far as your talents will take you.”