Preston Youth Zone will not be built at the city's bus station after a request for councillors to think again is rejected

There will be no rethink of the decision to scrap a plan to build a Youth Zone at Preston bus station.

Tuesday, 21st August 2018, 6:09 pm
Updated Wednesday, 22nd August 2018, 10:55 am
The plan to build at Youth Zone at Preston bus station has been officially scrapped after a committee voted against demanding the decision be re-examined.

Lancashire County Council’s cabinet voted earlier this month to abandon the project in its planned location - although leader Geoff Driver made a last-minute pledge to explore whether the facility might have a future elsewhere.

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Preston Youth Zone boss says project "is being thrown away"

A specially-convened meeting at county hall considered a request from opposition parties to force cabinet members to reconsider. But the authority’s internal scrutiny committee rejected the so-called ‘call-in’.

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Guy Topping, chair of the Preston Youth Zone board - which has been developing the scheme for nearly a decade - told members he was saddened to have to appeal for it to be saved.

“To be pretty much told that the dream is over is shattering,” Mr. Topping said.

“Over the past year, our partnership with Lancashire County Council has disintegrated. Suddenly, we were told that we had to tender for a project which we had helped deliver - which was a bit of a kick in the teeth,” he added.

The authority received no bids to run the proposed Youth Zone and cabinet members voted to redirect the near-£6m in funding earmarked for the project.

£1.25m will be spent completing work on that part of the bus station where the Youth Zone was to be built, with a similar amount used to pay the “abortive costs” incurred by the charity OnSide, which runs other Youth Zones across the country.

But several committee members suggested that the withdrawal of the cash was incompatible with the promise to look for an alternative.

County Cllr Mohammed Iqbal told the meeting that there were no “financial safeguards” for the project, because “all the money has been taken out and put into the [general] pot again”.

But County Cllr Driver said money did “not come into the issue at this stage”, advising members that no potential sites have been explored as yet.

The leader of the Conservative-run authority added that a previous plan for a Youth Zone close to county hall - developed the last time he was leader between 2009 and 2013 - showed the party’s commitment to youth services.

“If [that] decision had not been overturned, we would have had a Youth Zone operating in Preston for at least the last two years,” County Cllr Driver said. He also told members that the provision of leisure facilities for young people is now the responsibility of district councils and that the county council's youth service focuses on those "at risk...because of their circumstances".

The committee’s conclusion about whether or not to request a ‘call-in’ judges the process by which a decision is made - not its merits.

And so debate turned to the reason for inviting bids for the Youth Zone - rather than appointing the board which had long been working to establish the facility.

The meeting was told that European Union rules about state aid would have come into play, because of the financial support given to the project by the council.

When questioned as to how Chorley Council had managed to circumvent those regulations for its own Youth Zone, Julia Johnson, a specialist legal adviser at the county council, said the rules were “not black and white”.

But former council leader Jennifer Mein said: “It looks like the terms and conditions of the procurement were written to actively preclude the organisation we have been working with for nine years [from bidding].”

County Cllr Driver said the decision taken at cabinet was based on the “clear, unequivocal advice” of the authority’s officers.

Committee member Erica Lewis said County Cllr Driver’s last-minute suggestion at cabinet to search for an alternative model was “clearly unclear” and so fell foul of a requirement for decisions to be taken with appropriate consultation and advice from council officers.

County Cllr Driver said he was prepared to reconsider that part of the cabinet resolution, without putting the matter to a vote.

But he was told by several members that cabinet had made a single decision and that any call-in would demand the whole package voted through at cabinet be reconsidered - including the withdrawal of funding for the project.

The cross-party committee ultimately split along party lines, with seven members from the ruling Conservative group voting against the call-in and five opposition members from Labour and the Liberal Democrats supporting it.

The original decision of the cabinet now stands - to withdraw from the bus station site, but explore an alternative model which might be viable "in the current climate”.