'Unpopular' Ashton Park football plans to be reconsidered by Preston city councillors after legal advice

Controversial plans to build new football and sports facilities on Preston’s Ashton Park will be put to city councillors for a second time - in spite of having already been approved by a majority of them.
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This time, however, the debate and vote will be held in public after Preston City Council sought legal advice over its previous decision to discuss the matter behind closed doors.

The green light was given to the principle of the proposed development - the main elements of which include a new 3G pitch, two-storey sports pavilion and a 150-space car park - at a meeting of the full council in December.

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Subject to planning permission also being granted, that meant the £9.7m scheme was finally set to get off the drawing board - almost a year after the city authority was awarded cash from the government’s Levelling Up Fund to cover most of the cost of the project.

How the new sports pavillion at Ashton Aprk could look - but not if campaigners have anything to do with it (main image: National World/inset: Cassidy + Ashton)How the new sports pavillion at Ashton Aprk could look - but not if campaigners have anything to do with it (main image: National World/inset: Cassidy + Ashton)
How the new sports pavillion at Ashton Aprk could look - but not if campaigners have anything to do with it (main image: National World/inset: Cassidy + Ashton)
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Council defends overhaul for Preston's Ashton Park as residents threaten legal a...

However, the blueprint has long been blasted by a group of local residents who formed a campaign group to oppose it, drawing up a petition signed by more than 2,000 people.

As the Lancashire Post revealed last week, the Fight for Ashton Park group also issued the city council with a legal threat, warning the authority that it would seek to formally challenge the park proposal should it be given planning approval.

The Post understands that - amongst other things - the so-called “letter before action” questioned why the December council meeting moved into private session while the future of the Pedders Lane site was discussed, something the authority has previously said was as a result of commercial confidentiality in relation to the business case being put on the table.

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The town hall has now said that the report presented to councillors during that internal debate will be brought back before them next week for a second hearing - during which the public and press will be allowed to remain in the room.

Cabinet member for environment and community safety Freddie Bailey said of the surprise move: “Preston City Council has received objections to the proposals for the redevelopment of Ashton Park. We have sought independent legal advice with the aim of avoiding any potential delay to the project.

“The decision regarding the redevelopment of Ashton Park was taken on 14th December, 2023, and was taken in private. This was due to the report containing confidential financial and commercially sensitive information.

“Having taken legal advice, the council has decided to resubmit the report outlining the business case for Ashton Park to full council on 29th February, 2024. This will enable the report to be re-presented in public and for council members to reconsider the proposals to proceed with the building of the Ashton Park sports hub.

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“The report recommends to Council that they proceed with the development due to the benefits it will bring to our communities using The Government’s Levelling Up Fund,” Cllr Bailey added.

James Walmsley, founder member of Fight for Ashton Park, welcomed the step - and said it was entirely down to the campaigners’ legal letter.

He told the Post that the fresh meeting gave the city council and its members “an opportunity to right the wrongs” of the process so far.

“The right thing is to stop this proposal dead, where it is - because the people of Ashton-on Ribble have spoken and were 80 percent against it [in a public consultation].

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“It’s a chance for the councillors to have a rethink and support their constituents - and that’s all we ask, [for them] to support the will of the people. That is their job, that is why they are voted in.

“What [the council] must remember is that this is going to get more expensive for them, because every time we challenge them, they are answering us with their legal people and that is costing them money - and they have got to justify that expense,” James added.

As the Post revealed in December, although the votes of individual councillors from the December meeting were not published, it is understood that 20 supported the full scheme, with three voting against and 12 opting to abstain, out of those present.

The public debate at next Thursday’s meeting - which is also the annual council budget-setting event - also means that the business case for the three different options councillors were presented with will be revealed for the first time.

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Agenda papers already published for the gathering set out the advice councillors were given on the pros and cons of the three different options presented to them before Christmas, which have also now been confirmed.

They were the full-scale 3G option; a proposal to replace the 3G pitch with an equivalent grass pitch - to add to the six others that are part of the plans - while reducing the sports pavilion to single storey - and a ‘do nothing’ scenario.

Whatever the decision next Thursday, separate planning permission will still be required before the development can go ahead.

Cllr Bailey told the Post after the December decision that the proposed pavilion would be about more than just sport - and would offer wider community benefits.

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"The cafe [within it] is much needed – it will be a place that people can meet and socialise, it will help [those] who suffer social isolation; and people who are going to watch their kids play football can get a drink and meet all the other parents, too.

“Obviously, there’s a number of changing rooms, [but] the rest of the building is designed for the purpose of delivering social outcomes for the community. It really will have a massive impact and will go on to deliver social value work,” the cabinet member said.