The project, which was first mooted a decade ago, looked to have been dealt a final blow last year when the search for a site was effectively abandoned. Twelve months earlier, a gulf had opened up between the Preston Youth Zone board and Lancashire County Council over how the facility could be delivered.
However, it has now re-emerged as one of nine projects that will make up Preston’s bid to the government’s Towns Fund, which could bring £25m worth of investment to the city. Each of the proposals would share in the cash if the overall bid were approved.
The scheme will be pitched as “somewhere to go, something to do and someone to talk to” for young people in Preston aged between eight and 19. It would be operated by the same provider which runs the hugely popular Youth Zone in Chorley, which opened its doors two years ago and where one in three under-19s is a member.
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Guy Topping, chair of the Preston Youth Zone board, welcomed the project’s inclusion in the Towns Fund bid, after his dream of seeing it brought to life previously appeared to have been dashed.
“I’m delighted that there might finally be some progress – I’m not going to get too excited, but I’m remaining cautiously optimistic.
“It’s been a long time coming and there is still some way to go, but it will be needed more than ever after the pandemic, because a lot of families will be hit very hard by the economic downturn.
“There has always been such a big need for a Youth Zone in Preston – they do well wherever they are built and become vital to the communities they serve. It’s a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned,” Mr. Topping said.
Lancashire County Council had originally earmarked a site close to County Hall for the facility when the project was first discussed by a Conservative administration ten years ago. When Labour took control of the authority in 2013, they developed a revised plan to build it on land near the city’s bus station.
However, after the Conservatives regained power four years later, that proposal was deemed unaffordable and abandoned, amid political acrimony on both sides over who was to blame for the stalling of the project.
In 2018, Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver made a pledge at a cabinet meeting which looked set to plug the plug on the plans entirely to search for a site that would be economically viable. But last year, it emerged that no suitable plot had been found.
At that point, the estimated cost of the scheme stood at £8.5m. County Hall had committed almost £6m, while the Preston Youth Zone board had secured the cash to bridge the gap.
The county council had also pledged to cover 20 percent of the proposed annual running costs of £750,000 – but said it was unable to offer the “peppercorn rent” or 50-year lease requested by the Preston Youth Zone board.
The board said that the finances made it unable to bid to operate the site – and no other potential operators came forward.
If the Towns Fund proposal is approved, an as-yet-unspecified share of the cash will be used to help build the facility, with operator OnSide seeking funding for the day-to-day bills.
Mr. Topping said that it was “very sad” that it had taken so long to get to this point – and that generations of Preston children had already missed out on what a Youth Zone could offer.
“The young people who we first engaged to help design this are in their late-20s now – they may well have kids of their own.
“However, having been on this rollercoaster for so long, to finally get over the line would be amazing – and I really hope we can.”
WHAT ELSE IS ON OFFER FOR PRESTON?
Preston was one of 100 towns and cities invited to bid for a £25m share of the government’s Towns Fund, designed to spark urban regeneration and long-term economic growth in different parts of the country.
A total of 31 potential projects were whittled down to the nine that will now form the basis of Preston’s pitch for the cash.
The city is amongst the first to make a bid in the three rounds of applications which are being invited over the next six months. The 100 locations are not in competition with each other and each could be successful if their applications are deemed strong enough.
The city is hoping that its initial proposal will enable it to progress to a second round of bidding, during which more detailed submissions will be made. It is expected to be 12 months before successful round two applicants are announced and the individual projects can be brought to life.
In addition to the Youth Zone, this is what else Preston has in mind for the cash:
RE-IMAGINING THE HARRIS
The £10.7m project to completely refurbish the landmark museum and library has already secured £3.5m worth of funding and is due to submit a Heritage Lottery Fund application for another £4.5m in November. If successful, Towns Fund money could also go towards the ambitious scheme, which has been described as seeking to create “a cultural hub for Preston’s communities and a compelling attraction for local people and tourists”. Planned work includes revealing more of the building’s architecture – and improvements to the library, along with the development of a dedicated children’s space.
RENEWAL OF HARRIS QUARTER ASSETS
The proposed regeneration of city council-owned sites for cultural and community purposes, including Amounderness House and Birley Street Annex, as well as addresses on Lancaster Road. The Post understands that enabling work to support the reopening of The Guildhall would also be carried out.
HARRIS QUARTER ILLUMINATE AND INTEGRATE
Described as an attempt to “realise the full potential of the Harris Quarter” by making the most of its buildings, streets and open spaces. The plans would include the upgrading of the public realm on Friargate between Ring Way and the Flag Market, linked to improvements already planned. Enhancements to the wider area – including building illumination, digital projections and better street lighting – are also proposed.
‘ANIMATION’ OF PUBLIC SPACES
A project to enhance the public spaces that are or could be used for hosting events in the city centre – including the flag market, Winckley Square and the bus station. The improvements would enable them to be used “more intensively throughout the year”.
Some of the cash would be directed to the cinema, restaurants and leisure development being built on the city’s former indoor market and car park.
CITY CENTRE SKILLS SPACES
A central location within an as-yet-unidentified key building in the Harris Quarter to create a skills and careers hub for young people.
A scheme focusing on “supporting all aspects of culture in the city” – particularly by assisting community cultural organisations.
HEALTH AND WELLBEING CAPACITY-BUILDING
A scheme aiming to improve all aspects of the city’s health and wellbeing – now with a renewed impetus in the wake of the Covid crisis. Designed to capitalise on the city’s health and care assets to bring about improvements in mental and physical wellbeing.