Preston Youth Zone thrown a lifeline - but it probably won't be built at the bus station
Plans for a Youth Zone in Preston could still be salvaged, after councillors voted to try to find an alternative to a proposal to abandon the plan.
Lancashire County Council’s cabinet was poised to pull out of the project when it did not receive any bids from organisations willing to run the yet-to-be-built centre at the city’s bus station.
Preston Youth Zone board, which has been involved with the scheme for nearly a decade, said it could not make a bid, after “obstacles” were placed in its way.
But a last-minute lifeline was thrown to the project after county hall witnessed a protest from young people outside - and heated exchanges between members inside.
Leader of the Conservative-run council, Geoff Driver, accused the previous Labour administration of jeopardising the centre when it shifted the proposed site to the bus station from a previously-agreed location close to county hall.
“You sit there and accuse us of not appreciating the young people of Preston. Your colleagues waving their signs [in the meeting] really ought to reflect on who is to blame,” County Cllr Driver said.
But Labour leader Azhar Ali questioned whether the recent bidding process had been “set up to fail” and demanded that the authority go back to the drawing board - “or the the young people of Preston won’t forgive this council,” he said.
The meeting heard that rules about state aid had prevented the authority from offering a small ‘peppercorn’ rent to any operator of the building - one of several stumbling blocks for the Youth Zone board.
County Cllr Ali said that he could never recall the issue being brought before cabinet when Labour was in control between 2013 and 2017. County Cllr Driver told the meeting that the advice “was available” to the previous administration, but he did not know whether they formally received it.
Earlier this week, the Youth Zone board Chairman, Guy Topping, also expressed concern over the spiralling costs of the building - now standing at Â£8.5m, of which the council had pledged to fund almost Â£6m.
Cabinet members were told that inflation in the construction industry and a need to redesign the plans to incorporate the area’s Youth Offending Team in the building accounted for the increase.
Responding to concerns from the Youth Zone board about the co-location of young offenders, cabinet member for children, Susie Charles, asked: “Who is in the greatest need of changing their lives than those who have - or are in danger of - falling into a criminal way of life?”
As tempers frayed and County Cllr Ali demanded: “Are you going to build the Youth Zone or are you going to scrap it?” the meeting was adjourned for five minutes.
When members reconvened, County Cllr Driver made a recommendation that officers investigate a new model for the Youth Zone which might work “in the current environment”.
The proposal was agreed, but speaking after the meeting, County Cllr Driver indicated the bus station proposal was a non-starter.
“We simply can’t afford to put it on the bus station site with the plan that is currently before us - but we’ll do our very best to produce a Youth Zone within the current constraints,” he said.
Youth Zone board member Sarah Page said: “We want the opportunity to talk and find a solution. We must move forward with optimism.”
Guy Topping added: "We are just trying to digest exactly what has happened today."