THE jewel in the crown of Preston’s city centre regeneration programme is sparkling brightly again today after a £1.2m re-polish.
New-look Winckley Square Gardens have been reopened to the public in what city elders described as a “landmark” ceremony.
The restoration follows the £3.4m revamp of Fishergate and forms part of Preston’s biggest improvement programme for more than half a century, with the Bus Station, the Markets Quarter, the Guild Hall, the Park Hotel and New Hall Lane all being revitalised.
As Preston Mayor, Coun John Collins, snipped a ceremonial ribbon to officially open the newly-restored public green space yesterday, he ended a decade of debate - and occasional disagreement - over the future of what was once the most exclusive address in town.
Workmen took just 16 weeks to complete the “sympathetic” facelift, with new footpaths, a new drainage system, LED lighting, new seating and a reinforced grass event space.
But the public unveiling came almost 10 years after the idea was first suggested - and seven years after it was almost abandoned in the face of public opposition.
In the end planners came up with a scheme which attracted universal support and substantial financial backing from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
“It’s a landmark day for Preston,” said David Gill, chairman and a co-founder of the Winckley Square Community Interest Company (WSCIC), which was set up in 2011 by six business figures to spearhead the revival of the neighbourhood.
“It marks the start of an exciting future for Winckley Square Gardens. We are overjoyed with the transformation.
“We started with a blank sheet of paper, no money and a feeling by many that we wouldn’t get far. But it shows the power of partnerships between the community and the private and public sector.
“We now hope the community will take ownership of the gardens and enjoy them for years to come.”
The scheme was only given the final go-ahead last year after it won a £950,000 Lottery grant. Preston BID, a group representing more than 800 businesses in the city centre, coughed up a further £150,000 towards the work.
Environmental charity Groundwork led the project, Barton Grange Landscapes did the work and there was support from both the city and county councils and Preston Historial Society.
They repaired and repainted the railings and gated entrances around the square, installed a new drainage system to alleviate the flooding problems which had plagued the gardens for decades, widened and resurface pathways, removed dead trees and problematic shrub beds and installed new low level architectural LED footpath lights and CCTV.
They also put in new benches and litter bins, created a reinforced grass area to cater for events and activities and installed “interpretative” artwork to provide discovery points of interest relating to the places and people who played a part in the history of the square.
The project also included restoration of the statue of Sir Robert Peel - including giving him an expensive nose job.
Coun John Swindells, deputy leader of Preston Council, said: “It’s a great place to work and also a great place to live. That’s what the project is all about - restoring Winckley Square to its Georgian glory and full prominence.”
Coun Jennifer Mein, leader of LCC, added: “I’m sure these wonderful changes will greatly improve this area of the city, while helping to attract new businesses.”
Groundwork executive director Andrew Darron commented: “I’m incredibly proud of the work done by our team at Groundwork.
“It has been inspiring to work alongside local business people, passionate volunteers and historians and the local authority - all committed to making a difference.
“From writing the bid, managing the project, designing the landscape architecture and overseeing the building work, their commitment and expertise has been really important in helping to drive this project forward.”
Andrew Mather, from Preston Historical Society, said the gardens “have never looked better.” And Babs Murphy, chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce, added: “It is momentous to see the project complete.”