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HS2 axe could impact hoped ‘transformative’ Preston investment

Posted on - 4th October, 2023 - 7:16am | Author - | Posted in - Preston Council, Preston News, Preston Railway Station, Transport
An artist's impression of the Station Gateway Square
An artist’s impression of the Station Gateway Square Pic: Lancashire County Council

Hopes for transformative investment and new jobs in Preston could be dashed in the wake of today’s expected decision to scrap the HS2 link to Manchester.

That is the warning from politicians and business leaders with it now widely expected that Rishi Sunak is poised to pull the plug on the high speed line beyond Birmingham.

As the prime ministerial axe hovers over the northern leg of the long-awaited scheme, attention in Preston has turned to the impact that would be felt in the Lancashire city if it ultimately falls.

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Last year, a vision was unveiled for a radical revamp of the area surrounding Preston railway station – one which was at least partially pegged to the prospect of high speed trains eventually making it one of their stopping points.

Known as the Station Quarter Regeneration Framework, the blueprint was based on the creation of high quality ‘grade A’ office space to provide both public and private sector organisations with the kind of facilities in the city that they currently lack.

Setting sun over Preston Railway Station pic: Tony Worrall
Setting sun over Preston Railway Station pic: Tony Worrall

Together with the transformation of the public realm around the station – to form a so-called “welcome square” on Butler Street, making that the new main entrance – and the redevelopment of the Fishergate Shopping Centre and its car park to create a mix of retail and leisure outlets, the hope was that the overhaul would help attract and retain new and existing businesses and public sector operations.

However, the ambition contained within the 10-15-year framework was set against the backdrop of HS2 ultimately arriving in other parts of the North West.   The document mentions high-speed rail no fewer than a dozen times.

It describes HS2 as being able to “reinforce Preston’s position as a strategic rail hub”, but with shorter travel times.   The Fishergate site, meanwhile, is floated as an “attractive city living destination…adjacent to the station and its future HS2 provision, but with proximity to UCLan and the new office development”.

While the 225mph line itself – even under current plans – was never going to extend into Lancashire, it was expected that some of the trains themselves would join the existing West Coast Mainline at Crewe and travel, albeit at more sedate speeds, to places like Preston.

It was that promise which underpinned much of the station quarter plans – and while Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown says that the potential for the regeneration project to go ahead in the absence of HS2 would have to be fully assessed before any decision was taken, he warns that it raises the question of whether it would be worth it.

“I’m just wondering what we could actually do [in that location] if HS2 isn’t taking place,” Cllr Brown told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS).

“Because the whole idea around the station quarter is that more people are going to come into the city to work and participate in city life – and if that isn’t the case and we just have the infrastructure we have now, it seems we need to think, what’s the point of doing it?

“There is a conversation [required about] the public sector office space that we need and, obviously, we want to keep jobs within our community – but it’d just be a huge loss for our thinking around there at this moment in time.

“Plus, we’re now in 2023 – we can’t be having Victorian-style railway infrastructure within places like Preston, it is just completely inappropriate, [especially when] we’ve got to get people out of their cars and have decent public transport options.

“Ultimately, if the infrastructure isn’t brilliant here, government departments and others may think twice about [basing themselves] in Preston, they might want to go somewhere else,” the Labour council leader warned.

The deputy leader of the city council’s Liberal Democrat group, Neil Darby, said that the “uncertainty” about HS2 was putting plans elsewhere in the North of England “in jeopardy”.

“In this case, it is the much needed development of Preston station and the station quarter [area] – a key plank of long-overdue regeneration work in our city centre, which will bring in new jobs alongside the physical improvements to this part of Preston.

“Any lack of clarity about future development risks future investment and jobs in Preston falling like dominoes.

“If the Conservative government cancels HS2, it will prove once again how little regard they have for Preston and the rest of the North. We have been waiting for 13 years to see the fruits of the elusive Northern Powerhouse and instead we continue to see this government cutting back on vitally needed investment and infrastructure for our city,” added Cllr Darby, who is also the Lib Dem candidate for the Preston constituency at the next election.

Rishi Sunak told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday morning that he would not be “rushed” into making the call on the future of HS2.

“I am not going to be forced into a premature decision because it is good for someone’s TV programme.

“What I want to do is make the right decision for the country. This is an enormous amount of people’s money, taxpayers’ money…billions and billions of pounds.

“We shouldn’t be rushed into things like that. What people would expect from me is to take the time to go over it properly and make sure we make the right long-term decisions for the country.”

In local and regional media interviews last week, the Prime Minister refused to quash the rumours that the project north of Birmingham was under threat. Mr. Sunak has spoken of the importance of east-west rail links across the North of England, although the scheme to improve those – Northern Powerhouse Rail – is reliant on some elements of HS2 infrastructure.

The bill for HS2 had reportedly spiralled to £106bn by early 2020, almost double the £55.7bn estimate in 2015, when the government claimed that every £1 invested in the scheme would yield more than £2.50 worth of economic benefit.

In 2021, the planned stretch between the Midlands and Leeds was scrapped and earlier this year, it emerged that the London terminus would be Old Oak Common – six miles away from its initially planned end point at Euston station – as a result of increasing costs.

Preston’s station quarter framework was drawn up by consultants on behalf of Preston City Council, Lancashire County Council and the University of Central Lancashire.

The LDRS approached Conservative-controlled Lancashire County Council for comment on the speculation surrounding HS2’s future and the potential implications for Preston.

Railway Station Revamp

The 21st century trains that would be stopping off in Preston under the original HS2 proposal would require an overhaul of the city’s 19th century station – just so that they could fit alongside its platforms

In order to accommodate the new, longer rolling stock, platforms 3 and four would have to be extended. Replacement capacity for local and regional services would then be created by reopening the closed former mail parcel platform, known as platform 0.

That move would also provide the opportunity for what the station quarter framework highlights as the redevelopment of an area to the west of the building – in the direction of West Cliff and south of Fishergate Hill – including a new third entrance.   The change could also see the creation of new retail and food and drink and drink outlets.

However, the plans for that area – which appear to be wholly linked to the eventual arrival of HS2 trains – would also hinge on whether Royal Mail ever decided to vacate its sorting office nearby.   If that space were to become available, a broader blueprint for housing in that location could follow.

Counting the cost of ‘cancellation’

It has previously been claimed that as many as 11,000 new jobs could be en route to Preston over the course of 30 years if the city seizes the chance to become a hub for ‘high-value’ employment on the back of HS2 connectivity.

Back in 2019, a report commissioned by the Lancashire Local Enterprise Partnership estimated that the city region’s economy could get a £3.5bn boost to its “gross value” if HS2-related growth were fully harnessed.   An increase of £5.5bn was forecast for Lancashire as a whole.

The optimistic assessment was based on Preston following the example of European cities which have anchored their growth ambitions to rail investments.

“The Europeans are really good at … .actively planning for growth – they don’t just hope it’s going to happen,” Graeme Collinge, director of the report’s authors, consultants Genecon, said at an LEP meeting in June 2019.

The report also stressed the need to revamp the station itself, as well as the area surrounding it.

Meanwhile, Babs Murphy, CEO of the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, told the LDRS that if HS2 does fail to reach the North, Lancashire will undoubtedly feel the economic impact.

“HS2 would not only have brought more potential contracts to the Lancashire supply chain, but also have re-invigorated an economy which has suffered in a post-pandemic world.

“Our hope now is that the government comes up with a clear and concise framework for future investment in a railway which has remained largely unchanged since Victorian times, to provide cost management and support a transport system for the North which can be delivered,” Ms Murphy said.

She added that rumours of the line’s demise north of Birmingham are “clearly disappointing for the infrastructure of the existing rail network in the North West, though…not surprising given weeks of speculation”.

Destination nowhere?

This is what was envisioned for each of the four locations that make up Preston’s Station Quarter, before the current HS2 situation emerged.

Station East

Where: Butler Street station entrance and Fishergate Shopping Centre

The problem: The shopping precinct provides a “blank, unwelcoming frontage” to the station’s busy Butler Street entrance, while vehicle movements pose practical problems for pedestrians

The plan:

  • New public square
  • Upgraded station entrance
  • Creation of a mobility hub
  • Full or partial redevelopment of the shopping centre to create mixed-use buildings with a reduced number of retail units and increased space for leisure and food businesses, as well as hotel and apartment options on upper levels
  • Creation of ‘grade A’ office space
  • Housing development to the south of the site

County Hill

Where: The area centred around County Hall, which it is expected will continue to be used as the headquarters of Lancashire County Council, although fewer staff may be in regular attendance post-pandemic.

The problem: While the 19th century complex is considered to be of historic and architectural merit, there are no formal areas of open space and landscape features are also lacking. Half of the site is taken up with surface car parking.

The plan:

  • Creation of housing blocks and some new public sector buildings on the car park to the north of County Hall
  • Development of a multi-storey car park to partially replace the lost parking spaces
  • Formation of new streets to create a pedestrian-focused ‘campus environment’, along with open spaces – including a ‘pocket park’ on the corner of Fishergate Hill and Bow Lane

University Walk

Where: The Corporation Street corridor between Fishergate and UCLan.

The problem: Poor quality buildings and public realm, combined with vacant sites, are considered to be undermining the route between the city centre and university campus.

The plan:

  • Comprehensive redevelopment of the area between Fishergate and Heatley Street to create a “seamless, high-quality urban environment that forms a strong relationship between the station and UCLan”.
  • Enhanced pedestrian infrastructure, including prioritisation for those on foot
  • Creation of new buildings that could provide university accommodation and workspaces, as well as retail opportunities

Station West

Where: Area to the west of the station, dominated by rail depots and the Royal Mail sorting office

The problem: Former ‘parcel platforms’ of the station, for mail trains, are now disused

The plan:

  • Work at Preston Station to accommodate HS2-compatible services including bringing the former parcels platforms back into use for local and regional passenger services
  • Creation of a western entrance to the station
  • Theoretical possibility of residential development in the area, but only if Royal Mail ever decides to vacate the site

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