REVEALED: Planned site for Preston Youth Zone
The likeliest site for Preston’s planned Youth Zone has emerged, just days after the long-stalled project appeared finally to turn a corner.
The Post can reveal that a patch of land opposite the city’s bus station has been earmarked for the scheme.
The plot is currently used as a pedestrian cut-through between Tithebarn Street and Lord Street and borders the former pub, The Tithebarn, a Grade II-listed building.
Details of the proposed site were included in Preston’s bid to the government’s Towns Fund which it was announced had been successful in this week's budget.
According to the document making the case for a Youth Zone in the city, it would offer young people “somewhere to go, something to do and someone to talk to” - as well as supporting their emotional wellbeing as they “resume socialisation” after the pandemic.
The proposed facility is set to include an all-weather sports pitch, sports hall, dance studio, multimedia suites, recreation area and an opportunity to access employability and health initiatives.
The Youth Zone is one of nine projects in the Harris Quarter area for which the city had sought a total of £25m. Ultimately, it secured £20.9m - but the Post understands that the individual concepts proposed within the bid are nevertheless protected, although the scope of some of them will have to be changed to reflect the cash now available.
The pitch to the government requested £5.4m to part-fund construction of the Youth Zone - which it is estimated will cost £8.4m in total - and make an initial contribution to the £1.3m required every year to keep it running.
For Guy Topping, chair of Preston’s Youth Zone board, confirmation of the cash needed at least to get the project off the ground - more than a decade after it was first mooted - has turned perennial disappointment into unexpected delight.
“It’s hugely exciting for it to feel as though this is finally going to happen - and after waiting so long to get to this point, the Towns Fund announcement came out of the blue.
“And it has also come at a time when a Youth Zone is needed more than ever in Preston. As we come out of Covid and the economy is going to be down in the dumps, it will help all of those young people who benefit most from this kind of facility.
“It’s going to be in a great, accessible location - and also in an area that is now going to get all of this other investment as well, “ Mr. Topping said.
A final decision on the location and specification of the Youth Zone will be taken by the Preston Towns Fund Board, made up of local public and private sector representatives - including the city council, which owns the earmarked land. The Post understands that the group is due to meet to discuss plans for all of the Towns Fund projects in light of this week’s announcement and begin to develop the business cases now required by the government.
The bid document suggests that the Youth Zone could be completed in 2022, although Guy Topping is more cautious, estimating that it will be “a few years” before it opens its doors. When it does, it will welcome 8-19-year-olds, with the age range extended to 25 for those with additional needs.
Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown said that the facility was long overdue - but needed to look beyond its city centre base.
“It shouldn’t just be about one building, welcome though that is - the service will need to reach out, especially to deprived communities and areas where we see high levels of anti-social behaviour.
“I hope it will work with the existing community groups that provide youth services in the city, because there are many - and it makes sense to take a holistic view, where the central location ripples out into a supported network of provision.
“We need to build resilience and collaborate to make things happen, because local authority-run youth services have been significantly scaled back since austerity,” Cllr Brown said.
OnSide, the charity which will operate the new facility and runs 17 other Youth Zones across the country, developed an outreach programme from its Chorley site in order to ensure young people in the borough’s villages also benefited from its work.
The Chorley service has proved hugely popular, with 6,000 members signed up within a year of it opening in 2018 - double its target and accounting for one in three young people in the district.
The aim is for the Preston facility to attract 5,000 members, who will each be asked to pay a £5 a year membership fee and 50 pence each time they visit. The bid document suggests that the Youth Zone will support up to 35 full-time-equivalent jobs and provide 90 volunteering opportunities.
An OnSide spokesperson described the Towns Fund cash as “welcome news for Preston”.
“It is great that an OnSide Youth Zone was part of the proposal and we look forward to working with the council on the next steps,” they added.
The organisation will seek to contribute £4.2m towards the capital costs of the building via fundraising and charitable trusts, as well as aiming to raise £800,000 a year for the first three years of the Youth Zone’s life by securing support from the local business community and individual donors.
However, Guy Topping warns that there is still “a long way to go” before all of the funding is in place.
“We have to ensure there is enough money to build it, but also find the revenue for the ongoing running costs - there is not much point otherwise.
“We’ll also need to engage with Lancashire County Council again and hope that they’re feeling generous, seeing as they saved on the capital funding that they were going to put into it,” Mr Topping said.
That was a reference to the fact that County Hall was previously heavily involved in the project, having made a £6m commitment towards the construction of the facility and agreed a contribution to its running costs.
However, the deal ran aground in 2018 when the county council said that it could not also offer the “peppercorn rent” and 50-year lease that the Preston Youth Zone board was requesting.
The board said at the time that the finances made it unable to bid to operate the site – and no other potential operators came forward. The project has been on the backburner ever since.
Speaking in response to the latest developments, Conservative county council leader Geoff Driver congratulated Preston on its Towns Fund success.
He continued: “We have added £400,000 to the annual budget to improve and enhance services to young people right across the county and we will certainly look favourably on any request for support from the city council.”
A site close to County Hall was identified - and cleared - for a Youth Zone during the 2009-13 Tory administration.
When Labour took control of the authority in 2013, they developed a revised plan to build it at the city’s bus station - on a different plot to the latest one now identified
After the Conservatives regained power four years later, that proposal was deemed unaffordable and abandoned - and a new public space created there instead - amid political acrimony on both sides over who was to blame for the stalling of the Youth Zone project.