'No progress' in hunt for Preston youth zone site

The prospect of a youth zone in Preston seems further away than ever after it emerged that a search for a new site for the stalled project has come to nothing.

Wednesday, 29th May 2019, 8:25 pm
Updated Wednesday, 29th May 2019, 9:25 pm
How the Preston Youth Zone was supposed to look

Plans for the centre were thrown into doubt last year after Lancashire County Council did not receive any bids to run the facility.

The authority had earmarked nearly £6m to help develop a building at the city’s budget station, but the plug was poised to be pulled on the project last August when cabinet members voted to redirect that cash to other schemes - including a new public space where the youth zone would have stood.

However, protests at County Hall - and heated exchanges with opposition members in the cabinet meeting where the decision was due to be made - prompted a last-minute pledge by Conservative council leader Geoff Driver.

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Guy Topping

While maintaining that the bus station plan was no longer viable, he agreed to ask council officers to investigate other potential models for delivering a youth zone in the city which would work “in the current environment”.

But the man behind a decade-long push to make the project a reality in Preston says last summer’s promise was simply designed to get County Coun Driver out of a difficult political position.

Guy Topping has revealed that a subsequent meeting with the Conservative leader led him to conclude that “nothing of substance” had been done to come up with an alternative.

“He basically said it wasn’t going to happen, because they couldn’t justify spending the money in Preston when they have responsibility for the whole county.

“He said it was something Preston City Council should be providing and, although they were supportive when we spoke to them about it, they just haven’t got the money.

“That’s the ridiculous thing about [two-tier council areas] - nothing gets done,” he added.

The Preston youth zone board, which Mr. Topping chairs, decided not to submit its own bid for the facility amid concern over the spiralling overall cost of the project - which Lancashire County Council forecast was going to come to £8.5m.

Although the board had raised the cash to bridge the gap between the authority’s contribution and the final bill, it had wanted a “peppercorn rent” and a long lease on the building - but County Hall claimed it was not in a position to provide either.

Mr Topping said it was frustrating to see that the city had been left without the facility, while youth zones have become a “proven concept” elsewhere - including in neighbouring Chorley.

“They are working well in other areas and Preston could have had one of the first. But, basically, Coun Driver just didn’t want it at the bus station and that was that.”

But County Coun Driver says he was left with no option but to abandon what he says had become an “unaffordable” project.

The Conservative leader blamed the previous Labour administration for scrapping a plan which he had put in place for a youth zone when the Tories were in control at County Hall between 2009 and 2013.

“We left money in the budget to build the youth zone on Bow Lane and we even cleared the site.

“It was ready to go and the new Labour administration cancelled that and linked it to the bus station, which they bought for a £1 - that’s the situation we inherited and we can’t do anything about it.

“I regret the fact that it didn’t go ahead with our original plan, because we’d have had a youth zone up and running in Preston for the last four years,” County Coun Driver said.

And he rejected claims that he had not made serious attempts to bring the concept to the city.

“I said we’d explore it and we did, along with Preston City Council - and we both concluded that we couldn’t afford it”.

However, Jennifer Mein, who was the Labour leader of Lancashire County Council when the proposed youth zone was relocated to the bus station, defended her decision.

“We bought the bus station off Preston City Council, because we felt it was morally the right thing to do - we are the transport authority and have responsibilities.

“But it also provided us with the perfect location for a youth zone - it’s accessible and it’s not in a tribal area.

“We took the decision to move it for practical reasons, not political ones.

“It’s such a shame, because a lot of hard work went into it, including by young people themselves. Of course, those young people are now adults, but there is a new generation which really needs that type of service.”

Meanwhile, Preston City Council chief executive, Adrian Phillips, said the authority could not accept sole responsibility for resurrecting the project.

“Councillors have been very clear - they want a youth zone in Preston for our young people and are disappointed that the initial plans were not implemented. Finding a suitable alternate location has proven very complicated, but we are actively evaluating potential sites.

“However, we cannot see a way to proceed without the County Council’s support – virtually all youth zones are delivered by unitary or metropolitan authorities- and we are committed to continue working in partnership to find a viable solution.”

Youth zone board member Sarah Page said the city’s businesses could hold the key to making the long-awaited project a reality.

“The business community of Preston does remain interested and is willing to support a youth zone here, [as businesses have done in Chorley],” she said.

In spite of the impasse, Guy Topping says he is convinced that Preston will get its youth zone eventually.

“There is a way forward without council help if the right opportunity comes along and a site becomes available.

“And if a new council leader comes in and sees things differently, I’d certainly like to have a chat with them.

“But it will happen - I’m not giving up.”