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Battle for the soul of Ashton Park: Legal challenge expected after residents ‘totally ignored’ in favour of ambitious plans

Posted on - 24th December, 2023 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Parks, Politics, Preston Council, Preston News, Redevelopment
The proposed sports hub at Ashton Park
The proposed sports hub at Ashton Park

The councillor leading contested plans for a football-driven revamp of a Preston park says he hopes that those locals currently opposed to the idea will have second thoughts once the project is complete.

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Freddie Bailey told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that it had been a “no-brainer” for Preston City Council to press ahead with its vision for Ashton Park because of the benefits he claims that it will bring to the whole community.

The authority last week finalised its decision to install a synthetic 3G pitch and six grass playing surfaces on the Pedders Lane site, as well as to build a two-storey sports pavilion and a 150-space car park.

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However, the proposal has appalled a large group of residents who have fought against it from the moment it was first mooted earlier this year.

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Now, the 1,200-strong Fight for Ashton Park campaign says that it intends to mount a legal challenge to the overhaul, claiming that the city council has “totally ignored” public opinion on the subject – including the four in five respondents to a public consultation who set out their opposition to the plans.

Fight for Ashton Park members
Fight for Ashton Park members

The £9.7m scheme – which will still require separate planning permission before it can go ahead – is one of several that will be almost entirely funded with a share of the £20m awarded to Preston under the government’s Levelling Up Fund.

Speaking after the full council meeting at which the principle of the Ashton Park development was approved, Cllr Bailey – the Labour-run authority’s cabinet member for environment and community safety – insisted that the blueprint went far beyond football and denied that the council had scored an own goal by pursuing a project that has prompted more than 2,000 people to sign a petition against it.

“[The pavilion] is not just a sports hub – it’s much more than that.   The cafe [within it] is much needed –  it will be a place that people can meet and socialise, it will help [those] who suffer social isolation; and people who are going to watch their kids play football can get a drink and meet all the other parents, too.

“Obviously, there’s a number of changing rooms, [but] the rest of the building is designed for the purpose of delivering social outcomes for the community. It really will have a massive impact and will go on to deliver social value work.

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“We’ve not got to the negotiations [about] whether we decide to run [the facility ourselves] or lease it to an operator, [but] one thing that is absolutely key is that we will still own the building no matter what – we’re not going to sell it.

“[If] a social enterprise or some kind of charity or not-for-profit organisation was to run it, what we’d be looking for is one that has social benefits – either an existing charity that can upscale massively or a…new one that has some brand new ideas.

“I can assure residents it will be a better park.  Parks are there for everyone to use and we want a park that is a hive of activity, with people enjoying themselves – whether it’s going for a run through the new paths, using [the] new car park for wheelchair users, play[ing] some football or meet[ing] as a society or a group of friends.

“I’m hoping that in five or 10 years’ time [locals] can look back and think, actually, this is a great initiative and this investment right in the heart of our local community is absolutely invaluable,” Cllr Bailey added.

However, Fight for Ashton Park founder member James Walmsley says that the city council should be focussed on the simple fact that residents have spoken – and said that they do not want what is being proposed for their precious green space.

Out of the 641 people who responded to the public consultation into the plans – either at in-person events or online – around 80 per cent were “against much of the proposed development”, a council summary of the process concluded.

Their concerns centred on the 3G pitch and fears about associated issues, including “increased traffic, [problems] with car parking, the impact of the potential floodlights and …of increased noise”, “ the document noted.

“They’ve just totally ignored [all that] because it’s gone against them,” James said.   “If [the consultation] had been in favour…it would have been all over the Lancashire Post: ‘People of Ashton vote for sports complex’.

“It’s the amount of money that they’re spending just on football [that] upsets a lot of people – they have no idea.   To give almost £10m [from the Levelling Up Fund] to an exclusive few people – it is immoral.

“Most children don’t play football, [yet] there is nothing else planned for children on Ashton Park – the playground isn’t being done [up].

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“People are actually struggling to live – and they’ve done nothing for them [with] this project either.   There’s nothing about mental health and nothing about the environment in it – it’s not for the benefit of everybody.

“All that money…could be better spent [on improving people’s] wellbeing.  We’d love investment in the park – but we want investment for everyone.” James added.

He also questioned figures revealed to the LDRS by the city council in August which stated that the 3G pitch, new car park and sports pavilion elements of the scheme would take up just under 15 per cent of the park’s surface area.

James said that other aspects of the plans – such as the creation of a bund along the Larches Avenue side of the site – would not only “cut off” Lea and Larches from the park, but result in more of the popular site being lost.

Fight for Ashton Park has called for the pavilion to be built on the same footprint as a derelict changing room facility that currently stands on the edge of the park so that less green space has to be sacrificed.

The group is now intending to instruct a barrister as it believes there are legal grounds to challenge the current plans.

A planning application for the project was lodged just 24 hours after councillors approved the principle of the scheme on a majority vote.   The proposal will be considered by Preston City Council’s independent cross-party planning committee in the new year and the public can make representations for or against the scheme beforehand.

If permission is granted for the scheme, work will begin next summer, with an aim to complete it by late summer 2025.  The government had indicated that all Levelling Up Fund projects must be delivered by March 2025, but it is understood that there is some flexibility over the completion date.

Push for changes to football plans booted out

The Fight for Ashton Park group has previously called on Preston City Council to take advantage of a mechanism available under the Levelling Up Fund to revise the schemes for which cash has been awarded.

According to government rules, local authorities can make a “project adjustment request”. Councils that want to make an amendment affecting up to 30 per cent of the agreed “outputs and outcomes” of a proposal can do so without getting permission from ministers – provided that they stop short of making a material change to the type of benefits to be delivered.

A proposed alteration exceeding the 30 per cent threshold is also possible – but the government would have to give it the go-ahead.

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Campaigner James Walmsley said that councillors must have been aware of those options when they voted on the Ashton Park scheme last week – and should have sought to renegotiate the deal with Whitehall.

Cabinet member Freddie Bailey told the LDRS in October that he did not rule out going down the route, but said it was uncertain whether doing so would jeopardise other elements of Preston’s overall £20m Levelling Up Fund allocation.  That pot is earmarked for other projects including the replacement of the crumbling Old Tram Bridge and upgrades to facilities at Moor Park and Waverley Park, which have proved far less controversial than those suggested for Ashton.

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At the full council meeting where the vote on Ashton Park was taken – in private session because of commercially confidential details about the proposed contractor – the Conservative opposition group made an unsuccessful bid for the decision to be deferred until January.

Speaking to the LDRS after the meeting, Tory leader Sue Whittam said that the report with which councillors had been presented was “lacking in important detail” about the potential consequences of rethinking the Ashton plans.

“It was not clear…if the council would lose the whole [£20m] amount if there were changes to the Ashton Park project.  This was crucial – and a huge risk.

“The report was not clear [about whether] the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities had even been contacted regarding…the overwhelming rejection of the scheme by Ashton residents.  Without this information, we could not make a decision on what was best for Ashton.

“Once our deferral [amendment] was defeated, we had no choice but to abstain.  The residents of Ashton deserve better – [as do] the people of Preston – when consulted on important issues.  [They] need to be listened to by their elected members.

“It was obvious that Labour was determined to push the scheme through and…I would ask residents to engage in the planning process now, as that is [their] last opportunity to change this scheme,” Cllr Whittam said.

Answering that criticism, Cllr Bailey said that he had “left no stone unturned” in trying to secure the information councillors needed in order to make their decision – and blamed the government for the lack of clarity about the implications of going back to the drawing board over the vision for Ashton Park.

“We’ve been in dialogue with central government…[but they] would not give us a straight answer.

“The advice was that more than likely they would have approved an amendment, but it’s still a risk.  This government is incredibly unpredictable,” said Cllr Bailey, adding that the collapse of the bid would have cost Preston £24m – the £20m in government cash and £4m secured from other sources as match funding.

The LDRS understands that three options were put on the table for councillors to consider at the meeting: the full scheme, a slimmed-down version – with no 3G pitch, a smaller car park and a single-storey pavilion building – and a ‘do nothing’ scenario.   The recommendation of council officers was to support the most extensive plans.

However, the Liberal Democrats on the authority pushed for a vote on the second option as a compromise.  Their amendment was also defeated and they abstained on the vote for the full project.

Lib Dem group leader John Potter told the LDRS that his party’s suggestion would have “kept the investment in improving the park, such as the drainage, but removed or reduced many of the elements that the public were against, such as the 3G pitch, the environmental impact and the size of the car park”.

He added:  “This seemed the most sensible solution, to take into account the public’s concerns while still getting investment – but importantly not changing the character of Ashton Park.”

“Unfortunately, Labour and the Conservatives voted down our proposal. It does beg the question – what is the point of doing a consultation if you then ignore the overwhelming response to it?” Cllr Potter asked.

However, Cllr Bailey said that scrapping the 3G pitch as part of the second option would have rendered the entire project financially unviable – because the cash generated by renting out the synthetic surface is designed to support other elements of the scheme.

“If we built a small pavilion and smaller car park, the council would have to pay for the upkeep …[and] it could cost up to £140,000 per year in revenue, [but] wouldn’t deliver the social community aspects [of the scheme].  It would cost us more and wouldn’t [benefit] the local residents at all.

“To me…it seemed like a no-brainer that we go with the full project, where we…can deliver the sporting aspect [and] the social value. All of that should be cost-neutral to the council. So to me, that is a win-win,” Cllr Bailey said.

Although the votes of individual councillors have not been published, the LDRS understands that of those members present, 20 supported the full scheme, with three voting against and 12 opting to abstain.

Kids’ leagues ‘crying out for more space’

A junior league football coach says that the new 3G facilities at Ashton Park will reduce match cancellations and cut the distance children have to travel to play their games.

Springfield girls under-8s team manager Christopher Murray told the LDRS that fixtures in the Mid Lancs Colts League often fell victim to the Lancashire weather and its impact on playing surfaces.  He added that a general lack of capacity meant that the number of matches played in the area had fallen “massively” – and claimed that the combination of new 3G and grass facilities at Ashton would help meet burgeoning demand.

“Our club has got 16 teams playing, ranging from six to 16 years old.  We have block bookings [for facilities] at Ashton High and Vida [the former Tulketh High School site] – but that’s purely for training…and we’re still screaming for more.

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“So it’s not a case of [us] not using [available pitches] and just saying we want [the Ashton Park development] for the sake of [it].  We are using these [existing] facilities and we are having to squeeze more teams onto the pitch.

“We have to travel every week up to Bamber Bridge just to play our league games on 3G, because [grass fixtures in] Penwortham tend to be cancelled.

“The [new] grass pitches at Ashton will be properly maintained.   Team football isn’t played on the park at the moment, [because] if it rains too much, you get massive flooding that can be a couple of feet deep.  When it’s dark, there’s no lighting, so you can’t see where your footing is,“ Christopher explained.

He said that he expects the plans for Ashton Park – which previously had nine grass pitches, but now has just two – will be a boost to young people’s mental health in the area and reduce levels of antisocial behaviour.

However, Fight for Ashton Park member Stephanie Winterbottom says that if the development does go ahead, then the park as locals have always known it will be “lost forever”.

She said that she cannot see how the proposed sports pavilion can possibly be granted planning permission when requests for cladding on homes close to the park have been turned down for not being in keeping with the area.

“The building is so ugly – it looks like a crematorium,” Stephanie said.

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