The man leading the campaign to build the Preston Youth Zone has hit out at Lancashire County Council for ‘playing politics’ with young people’s future in the city.Advertisement
Chairman of the Preston Youth Zone, Guy Topping, has spoken of his anger at the county council’s expected decision to scrap the multi-million pound project – as revealed on Blog Preston on Wednesday evening.
Mr Topping, who also runs Barton Grange Garden Centre, says the Youth Zone Board were left unable to tender to run the building due to changes made by the county council.
He said: “The decision to put the Youth Offending Service in there was not something we agreed with. Not just regarding the children but about the staff too – they would have offices there and that would take up a lot of space. There’s no problem with teenagers who are involved with youth offending using the Youth Zone, but the service shouldn’t be based there. A youth zone is something different.
“Then there was the lease. Throughout the period we had been working with the county council, and like all other Youth Zones, it needed a long-term lease.
“We are a group of business people and we brought together different partners to find the funding, and they need a long-term commitment if in many cases they are commiting hundreds of thousands of pounds. But the county council changed it from being a 125-year lease to terms of having a 25-year lease. You can’t ask someone to invest, like the Queen’s Trust, without that commitment in terms of time. Again, that was a big stumbling block for not tendering.”
A report to Lancashire County Council’s cabinet outlines the state of play with the Youth Zone, saying no one came forward to take up the tender, but Mr Topping said County Hall only has itself to blame for making the Youth Zone operation an unattractive proposition.
He said: “They, and Mr Driver, they just don’t like the idea. I don’t know if it’s because it’s at the Bus Station, so it’s seen as Jenny Mein’s Youth Zone, and they want it back at Bow Lane, but if they do that’s just petty politics.
Mr Topping, who has defended the design of the Youth Zone, lashed out at the way Lancashire County Council has handled the project.
Read more: The rising cost of Preston’s Youth Zone
He said: “The costs are escalating and we were called in for a meeting before the tender process and told it was now going to be £8million or more to build it. Our contribution would have to go up, and that was okay, because we said we’d do that – but on the condition their annual contribution to help us run it went up too. Then the tender came out and that amount was gone.
“I just feel very let down by the whole process. This was supposed to be a partnership, and it was, but increasingly it’s ended up feeling like they would just have us as tenants in the building and it wouldn’t be as much of a Youth Zone. We were working as a partnership, and then they decided it would go out to tender, and things changed.
“We’ve been so flexible and accommodating throughout this process, and over the years, and now it just feels like it’s been thrown back in our face.”
Mr Topping also questioned whether it was possible for the county council to get value for money from the project.
He said: “Because of the completely inefficient way that County Hall choose to operate things, you’ve got Youth Zones being built in London and which are much cheaper than this one.
“Why have we got an architect from New York working on it? I’ll never know. I mean I like the design but we’ve got plenty of good architects here in Lancashire who could have done it. But that’s Lancashire County Council for you.
“What needs to be highlighted too is that this is going to potentially cost a lot of money to not do. More than £1million will have to be paid out, we’ve invested money, so have many others and they (the county council) will have to foot the bill.
“Let’s not forget all the time as well. All the politicians and officers, they are being paid to sit round the table during these meetings, I’m not, I’m there because I was willingly giving up my time to make this happen.”
Read more: Preston Bus Station information centre may not close after all
The Youth Zone was first proposed in 2009 and construction was about to begin at its initial location in Bow Lane.
But the then Labour-run administration decided to move the location of the building to be part of the Bus Station redevelopment – which they announced in 2014.
Mr Topping said he didn’t see any other viable locations for the Youth Zone in Preston.
He said: “It’s a great location. You need to have somewhere which young people can access easily, by public transport, as that’s how they get around.
“You look at the other Youth Zones in Lancashire, and elsewhere, and they are by transport hubs. And they work.
“Are you telling me that Carlisle, Chorley, Bolton, Blackpool, they can all make a Youth Zone work and yet Preston can’t? Something has gone very wrong here.”
Read more: Star Youth Centre in Ashton-on-Ribble earmarked for closure
One of the options councillors will be given during Thursday’s cabinet meeting is to approach one of the potential providers of the Youth Zone directly.
Mr Topping said he would still be open to further conversations.
He said: “Yes, of course we’re not happy. But it’s about doing this for the young people of Preston. So if the county council want to come and talk, then of course we will get round the table, but they have got to listen to issues like the youth offending team being based there and the difficulty about the length of the lease. If they don’t, we can’t move this project forward.
“I would hate to see that space end up with nothing there. What else will they build? We’ll end up with an enormous space and half an operating Bus Station. It will be a wind ravaged wasteland. The whole point of putting the Youth Zone there is to then make a courtyard effect with the Guild Hall, the Bus Station and the shopping centre. Now that could be gone.”
Following the publication of the story on Blog Preston, and the officer’s report, Lancashire County Council issued a statement in response.
Geoff Driver, leader of the county council, said: “We’re disappointed that no organisations or businesses applied to operate this youth zone, which aims to provide high-quality services for young people.
“We’ve looked carefully at our options for the project, in order to decide what happens next.
“The redevelopment of the bus station has already transformed this iconic building and the surrounding area, benefiting people who use it and increasing access.
“Any decisions that are made by the Cabinet will need to continue the improvements that have already taken place in this area of the city centre.”
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