One of the main players in a plan to build a Youth Zone in Preston bus station says he feels “shafted” by Lancashire County Council, after the project was left hanging in the balance.
Guy Topping, chairman of the Preston Youth Zone board, claims the authority has made it impossible for the only organisation capable of running the venue to continue its involvement.
The authority’s cabinet will this week debate a recommendation to scrap the scheme - nine years after it was first conceived - because it did not receive any bids from potential operators.
“We have always [kept] our side of the commitment,” Mr Topping said.
“We’ve raised £3m of capital to go into this project, we’ve found the £750,000 per annum to run [it] and we’re very ready to get this Youth Zone going.”
But the Preston Youth Zone board did not submit an application to run the project which it had helped to develop, because, Mr. Topping says, “obstacles” were placed in its in way.
When county hall advertised the contract for an operator in April, it offered to contribute just under £6m towards the estimated £8.5m cost of construction and £150,000 per year to help fund the project for the next decade.
But it stipulated that it could not offer a discounted ‘peppercorn’ rent on the building and also that the lease would run for only 25 years. And that was a deal-breaker for the board.
“When we’re asking people like the Queen’s Trust to put half a million pounds in, they will only [contribute] to what’s seen as a long-term project,” Guy Topping said. “They want to know this is still going to be there in 50 years’ time.”
Mr. Topping also questioned the council’s calculation of the cost of building the facility on the recently-refurbished bus station.
“All the other [Youth Zones in the country] have been built for around £6m,” he said. “I don’t get why it costs £2m more to build a Youth Zone in Preston than London.”
Cabinet members are now set to discuss a recommendation to withdraw from the scheme completely.
That would likely result in a bill to the authority of £2.5m - half of which would be spent completing new public realm works on the part of the bus station where the Youth Zone would have stood and the rest covering the costs expected to be claimed by a charity which has been supporting development of the facility.
The remaining £3.4m from the original budget for the scheme would then be available to reinvest in other capital projects.
In a statement, Lancashire County Council leader, Geoff Driver, said: "We're disappointed that no organisations or businesses applied to operate this youth zone, which aims to provide high-quality services for young people.
"We've looked carefully at our options for the project, in order to decide what happens next.
"The redevelopment of the bus station has already transformed this iconic building and the surrounding area, benefiting people who use it and increasing access.
"Any decisions that are made by the Cabinet will need to continue the improvements that have already taken place in this area of the city centre."
Meanwhile, Guy Topping is counting the cost of the projects’ apparent abandonment n the “thousands of hours” which have been spent on it over the last decade.
“We wanted to bring a world-class facility to Preston. The kids need somewhere to go, they need something to do and they need someone to talk to - and it looks like [it is] all being thrown away.
“We need a Youth Zone in Preston, it really ought to happen. We need to work with the council as a partnership, but that relationship has disappeared,” Mr. Topping added.
What is a Youth Zone?
Modelled on Bolton Lads’ and Girls’ Club, which dates back to 1889, Youth Zones are a modern take on the traditional youth club.
They have been springing up across the country since the charity OnSide brought the concept into the twenty-first century a decade ago.
The organisation has been heavily involved in the bid to bring one of its facilities to Preston, working with local businessman and volunteer Guy Topping, Chairman of the Preston Youth Zone board, to make the project a reality.
The most recent Youth Zone opened in Chorley back in May and has already attracted over three thousand members. Another has been based in Wigan since 2013.
The organisation describes its facilities as “non-threatening environments to spend time with friends, enjoy a nutritious, hot meal, take part in group activities and learn from adult role models”.
A total of nine Youth Zones are now open across the country, with a further seven in development, many in London.