Ashton Park campaign group rallies against sports hub plans

Posted on - 3rd August, 2023 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Ashton-on-Ribble, Larches, Lea, Parks, Politics, Preston News, Tulketh
Members of the fight for Ashton Park group Pic: BBC LDRS

Controversial proposals for a new sports hub in Ashton Park should be kicked into touch say a campaign group.

Almost 400 people living in the vicinity of Ashton Park have come together to demand a rethink of the authority’s £9.5m proposals, which they say will effectively turn the green oasis into a largely paid-for sports facility.

Their objections revolve around the planned installation of a synthetic 3G football pitch, along with the creation of a new “sports hub” building and car park – all sited on what is currently open parkland.

Read more: Preston’s parks retain their green flag status

The number of grass football pitches on the Pedder’s Lane plot is also set to treble – and while there is far less concern about that aspect of the overhaul, there are nevertheless calls for a wider variety of sports to be accommodated.

Preston City Council says that the floodlit 3G pitch will not be restricted to football use and that the aim is to provide an all-weather space for a range of “grassroots” sporting activity.

The council has launched a consultation into its plans, which would see the sports hub replace the current crumbling changing pavilion.  The new structure would house changing facilities, toilets, a café and rooms that would be available for community use.

How the new Sports Hub in Ashton Park may look Pic: Preston City Council

The blueprint is one of three proposed upgrades to a trio of city parks – the other two being Moor Park and Waverley Park – to be funded, in part, by government Levelling Up Fund cash secured by the town hall earlier this year.

However, when the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) met more than two dozen locals from the Fight for Ashton Park group – formed in direct response to the city council’s plans – they said that the proposed changes flew in the face of what levelling up was supposed to be about.

James Walmsley – who has overlooked the site from his house on Larches Avenue for more than 50 years – warned that it would simply “cease being a park as we know it” if the proposal went ahead in its current form.

He was one of several who also said that charging for the 3G football pitch would exacerbate the effect of the pay-to-play tariff being brought in for use of Ashton Park’s tennis courts.

“When I moved here in 1972, you could go and play a game of bowls in the park…[and] pitch and putt, [but] the council took that away.    You could even play organised football…but they took those pitches away for a lack of use.

“All of a sudden, they have got a little windfall and now they want to build a sports hub on our park and totally change the usage of it.  It then stops being a park and starts being a vanity sports centre for Preston City Council – and that’s all it is.

“They have got this money, [but] they haven’t got the know-how to really implement a levelling up policy, they haven’t got a clue.  They think that this is levelling up – making people who can’t pay their rent, can’t pay their electricity bill [and] can hardly feed their children…pay for [those] children to enjoy a game of tennis or a game of football.  That is just not the way to go,” group founder James added.

Local mum Tina McAlone added that the £4-per-hour charge for the tennis courts was unaffordable for families already struggling with the cost of living – and said that charging fees for the 3G pitch would mean that the new facility failed to “generate any health and wellbeing benefits” for local people.

The LDRS has been told that the grass football pitches will remain free and open for general use – except at times when a team has paid to play on them.

Another group member bemoaned the lack of other sporting options for the park and said that putting a running track around its perimeter would be more use than what was proposed.

Watch Ashton Park campaigners give their views on the proposals or see it on YouTube

Nearby resident Stephanie Winterbottom said that “nobody is against” the provision of grass pitches – of which there will be six in total, one full-sized adult surface and five junior facilities.  Previously, there had been nine grassed football pitches, but seven were removed as a result of their deteriorating condition.

However, like many others, Stephanie expressed her dismay about the degree of existing parkland that would be taken up by the new additions – and appealed for the new sports hub to be built where the current run-down pavilion stands. “Why not put [it] on that footprint and save a little bit more grass?”

It is the proposed loss of grassland that also moved Susan Reid to join the campaign against the council’s plans – even though she lives in Longridge.

“I feel very strongly about any loss of biodiversity, no matter where it is..especially in these times of catastrophic climate breakdown,” she explained.

“The very fact that we are even discussing losing this vitally important area is ludicrous. Look at the life that’s in these trees – we’ve got bats, owls, birds. This grass in itself is a larder for wildlife – the insects that they eat [live] on this grass.

“Every single carbon-capturing, oxygen-producing organism is vital for all of us.”

Residents also rejected the suggestion that the park needed a new 150-space car park to replace the much smaller facility that is currently available, predicting that the only reason more parking space would be needed would be because of the number of football players that would be drawn to the site from other parts of the city.

The current car park in Ashton Park Pic: BBC LDRS

The city council told the LDRS that the proportion of the green space taken up by the new sports hub building, car park and 3G pitch equates to 14.8 percent of the total park footprint.

The authority stressed that the space created by the demolition of the current pavilion could be turned into a green area – and also refuted claims being made locally that trees would have to be cut down as part of the plans.

However, James Walmsley remained unconvinced of the merits of such a monumental series of changes to a park that has been the constant view from the front of his home for over half a century – and one that he says brought his wife, Linda, solace before she sadly passed away in March this year. “I’m doing this for her,” he said. “And I am convinced we will win.”

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What does the campaign group want?

Campaigners opposing the plans for Ashton Park say that they accept the site needs sprucing up – but believe that are better ways of doing that than the city council’s current blueprint.

Ann Cowell, who has lived within a stone’s throw of the park’s gates all her life, told the LDRS that the local authority’s consultation questionnaire was too geared toward its own vision for the site.

“[It] is quite biassed, in my opinion – it’s based around sports [and asks] what do you book and why do you book it?  It’s not really a questionnaire for a park – it’s more for a football club or a sports centre,” she said.

“We want to have a say in what happens…[and] we’ve got some really good ideas. Let’s have a rational discussion about this.”

Her friend, Stephanie Winterbottom, added:  “We could have a skate park, much better facilities for children, better drainage, more seats for the older people –  there’s a lot that could be done to this park that would benefit the whole community, not just the minority.”

The current pavilion in Ashton Park Pic: BBC LDRS

She also described the proposed location of the new car park, close to an existing children’s play area as “an accident waiting to happen”.

The council said that “highways modelling” still needed to be undertaken as part of the planning application process – and that “all decisions on design and access to the car park will be undertaken with public safety at the forefront of any designs proposed”.

Meanwhile, locals have reacted angrily to a suggestion that they say was made by the city council at a recent consultation event that if they did not accept the Levelling Up Fund plans proposed for the park, the cash would be lost and they would “get nothing”.

“It doesn’t matter, we’ll lose that money, then – we don’t care,” local resident Karen Eastham said.

A spokesperson for Preston City Council told the LDRS that the authority’s comment arose from a public question about whether the Levelling Up Fund money could be spent on another park instead.

“The council advised that the funding is for Ashton Park and that Preston could risk losing the funding if it isn’t spent [there] in line with the proposals that were put forward to the government.

“The proposals are still at the master planning stage and they need to be worked up into plans suitable for a planning application, based on a wide range of surveys, detailed design work and feedback from the public consultation exercise.”

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Blinded by ‘the bund’

Residents say that a proposed earth mound – or “bund” – to be built along the Larches Avenue perimeter of Ashton Park will obliterate views for residents – and claim that it will not even succeed in its stated aim of reducing noise and light pollution from the football facilities.

Janine Marshall described it as potentially a “massive eyesore”.

“It’s going to spoil the view of the people who can currently see the field – and I think they’ll probably still see the [flood]lights over the top of it,” she said.

Meanwhile, Fight for Ashton Park group founder James Walmsley, said he believed the bund was only going to be built to spare the council the cost of removing and disposing of the earth that will have to be dug up to create the car park, sports hub and 3G pitch.

“They were telling us at the first [consultation] meeting that it was going to be built to lessen the light and the noise, but it’s 200 yards away [from the 3G pitch], so I knew straight away that that wasn’t true.   Acoustic bunds are built right next to the source [of any noise].

Ashton Park has a green flag award for being a good open space and park Pic: BBC LDRS

Preston City Council told the LDRS that bunds had been “proven to act as a natural noise buffer and will deflect any excess noise coming from the new pitches”.

“The bunds that may be created around the boundary of the site will also protect the park from unwanted vehicle access which is currently an issue on some areas of the park.  The exact location of any bund has yet to be confirmed and comments made by residents will be considered during the design process.

“The houses are far enough away from the proposed site of the new pitches not to be affected by the development and the noise surveys being carried out on site will highlight any cause for concerns pre-planning submission,” a council spokesperson said.

Preston City Council received £20m from the government’s Levelling Up Fund earlier this year.  As well as upgrades to several of the city’s parks, the money will be spent on a replacement for the Old Tram Bridge connecting Avenham Park and Penwortham, and improved cycling facilities.

Of the £9.5m cost of the Ashton Park plans, £7.5m is Levelling Up Fund cash, while a further £2m will be sought in match funding from stakeholders.  The LDRS understands that an application will be made to the Football Foundation, incorporating findings from the public consultation on the viability and delivery of the scheme.

Consultation event

A further consultation event about the proposals for Ashton Park will be held on Thursday 3rd August at St. Bernard’s Larches and Savick Community Hub, from 4pm until 6pm.

The consultation period is open until 31st August and a survey can be filled in at the city council website.

What Preston City Council has to say on…

…charges for park sports facilities and what’s happening with the tennis courts:
“Use of the 3G pitch may be charged similarly [to the tennis courts], subject to agreement by Preston city councillors.  When teams book the grass pitches, they will be charged a fee in the same way they currently book pitches. Residents can use the grass pitches on the park, the same as how they operate currently. As long as there is no team playing at the same time, the grass pitches still form part of [the] open park space”

“All the other facilities on the park will remain free of charge, such as the play area, outdoor gym, basketball/kickabout area, car park, walled garden and walking routes.
“We wanted to have the tennis courts ready all set for the summer tennis season, but due to a series of setbacks in the construction programme, this opening has unfortunately been delayed which is disappointing for all. We apologise for any inconvenience and we thank you for your ongoing patience. The tennis courts were in a really poor condition, and we want to make sure that we have great, high quality, public tennis courts that everyone can enjoy.

“Unfortunately, the new courts at Ashton Park have already been broken into and the nets vandalised, which will set the opening back at this location even further. More details will follow shortly on the opening of the new courts.”

…the need for sports other than football to be accommodated in the park plans
 “There are other amenities on the park already available in addition to football, including the play area, outdoor gym, basketball/kickabout area, walled garden and walking routes. The consultation aims to address questions around multi-sport, to determine if there is more of a need in the area. The grass pitches are also available for a variety of sports uses, not just football.”

…the loss of biodiversity as a result of the plans
“A number of surveyors have been asked to carry out surveys that will inform any proposals. This includes topographical surveys, a tree survey, a drainage survey, a bat survey, a soil survey and an ecological survey.

“Landscaping improvements to the park will include new habitat creation to ensure that the park benefits from a net gain in biodiversity following the development. Preston City Council has a commitment to being net zero by 2030 and all future developments will take this into consideration.”
…there already being enough 3G facilities in the area
“One of the main objects of the Levelling Up Fund is to bring [abandoned] pitches back into use and ensure they have a sustainable future.  Further consultation with the local football clubs will be carried out to identify areas of need in the area and will be included in the consultation report, prior to a planning application being made.”

 …cutting down trees in the park  
“There are no current plans to cut down any of the trees. The highways modelling is yet to be undertaken and detailed plans need to be drawn up. If there was a need to remove any trees, these would be replaced and we anticipate planting additional trees as part of the renovation.”

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