Controversial Ashton Park plans clear final hurdle in being granted planning permission

Posted on - 25th April, 2024 - 9:03pm | Author - | Posted in - Ashton-on-Ribble, Parks, Preston Council, Preston News, Redevelopment
Ashton Park sports hub/community building
Ashton Park sports hub/community building

Controversial plans to install a 3G football pitch and build a new sports pavilion on Preston’s Ashton Park have cleared their final hurdle after being granted planning permission.

The facilities will form part of a £9.7m redevelopment of the Pedders Lane green space, which will also see the creation of six grass pitches and a 120-space car park.

Preston City Council’s planning committee has approved the blueprint nine months after the public were first asked for their thoughts on it.

Read more: Public access to alleys on four Preston streets to be blocked

During that time, the scheme has been championed by local football teams who say they badly need the playing space, but strongly opposed by a group of locals – more than 2,200 of whom signed a petition objecting, in particular, to the all-weather surface and the scale of the proposed new sports and community hub building.

The Friends of Ashton Park group even threatened legal action over the plans, causing the city council – which drew them up – to debate the principle of the development at a public meeting of the authority in February, after a majority of councillors first gave it the nod during a private session in December.

Protest outside Ashton Park on Feb 29
Protest outside Ashton Park on Feb 29

They gave it their backing for a second time after hearing that there was no guarantee that amending the project – which has largely been financed by the government’s Levelling Up Fund – would not jeopardise other Preston schemes being paid for from the same £20m Whitehall pot, including the replacement of the Old Tram Bridge.

Thursday’s planning committee meeting heard that an objection lodged by Sports England to one of the new footpaths proposed for the park had been addressed by removing the thoroughfare – and so paving the way for council planning officers to recommend that the revamp be approved.

Peter Mason, speaking on behalf of what he described as the “football community” in Preston, said there were “numerous teams within the Preston area who have not played, or played only a handful of games, since last October due to the weather”.

He added that the club he chairs, the Sir Tom Finney Preston Soccer Centre, could establish another 10 girls-only and five mixed teams for its young members – but they would have nowhere to play.

“I have the demand, I have the volunteers – I just don’t have the facilities,” Mr. Mason said.

Committee member Fiona Duke asked how the majority of users of a facility like the one planned would travel there – and whether it would be by coach.  Mr. Mason said his club used car sharing for cost reasons.

Meanwhile, Alban Cassidy, the agent for the application, set out the sporting heritage of Ashton Park – home to the renowned Dick, Kerr Ladies football team – claiming that the proposal is “not looking to introduce activities that haven’t already been taking place for over 150 years on this site”.

However, Cllr Liz Atkins – one of the Ashton ward’s three councillors – said the 3G pitch had caused “a great deal of unease” amongst local residents.

“In the beginning, I thought this [would] be easy – [and that] surely we [could] negotiate and compromise and just take the 3G pitch out – and everybody would be more or less happy.

“But it never happened, the 3G pitch stayed firmly in place,” Cllr Atkins added.

For that, she blamed the tight timeframes imposed by the Levelling Up Fund, which had set March 2025 as the deadline for the delivery of most of its schemes.   In the case of Ashton Park, completion is now more likely to be later that year.

“The Levelling Up [Fund] is really not fit for purpose.  It advises…[councils] to properly consult …with residents who are going to have to live with the scheme, [but] it doesn’t leave enough time for councils to do this,” Cllr Atkins said.

A total of 187 letters of objection to the plans were sent from 130 households, while 29 letters of support were received from 26 dwellings.

Committee member Stephen Thompson won support for a reduction in the planned operating hours of the floodlit 3G pitch, which had been due to remain open until 10pm.  The committee imposed a condition moving the finish time back to 9pm, to reduce any disturbance to locals later in the evening.

The committee heard that the six floodlights to illuminate the pitch would be directed away from nearby housing and would not result in “light spill” beyond the boundaries.

As he mused on the merits of the project, Cllr Thompson asked – rhetorically – “Has there been enough conclusion with local people?” which drew a loud chorus of “No” from park campaigners in the public gallery.

Prior to that, he had commented:  “There are things that people are not happy with that may well be outside the scope of this committee – and I can understand that people get frustrated with things that they think should be covered here, but they aren’t, that’s just how the system works.”

The application was approved by eight votes to three.

Oh, crumbs – concern over old tyres in all-weather surface

Much of the debate at the committee focused on the use – and safety – of so-called “rubber crumb infill” for the 3G surface.

The EU plans to ban the sale of such products from October 2031.  Although the UK would not be affected by that prohibition, the meeting heard that it may choose to follow a similar path.

Local resident Bill Raines urged committee members to bear in mind the findings of a recent  Stirling University report which concluded that “grinding tyres up and applying them to sports fields, creating micro-particles and intentionally exposing humans and ecosystems to them, is not a wise public health and environmental policy”.

Even if the UK does introduce its own ban on rubber crumb infill, the meeting heard that it will not prevent facilities where it has already been installed from retaining them for the duration of their lifespan, which is usually eight years.

However, committee member Lynne Brooks raised the issue of whether it would be the council’s responsibility subsequently to “clean up” and “decontaminate” the park as a result.

But Natalie Somers, Preston City Council’s head of development control, said she did not believe the question “relates to the planning application”.

That statement brought gales of laughter from the public gallery, but Cllr Brooks could not find a fellow committee member to second her proposal to defer the decision on the plans to allow for consideration of potential alternative surfaces.

“If we grant planning permission for a hundred houses, we don’t then talk about how they’re going to be demolished in [future],” Ms. Somers added.

Committee member Jennifer Mein suggested that a condition be imposed stipulating that Preston would not “necessarily go with rubber crumb”  should other suitable options come onto the market before the installation of the 3G pitch on Ashton Park.

However, legal officer Ian Blinkho said the measure was “too vague and imprecise” to be included.

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