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Five years on from the Stoneygate Masterplan and whether it will finally fix Church Street

Posted on - 13th May, 2024 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Avenham, Housing, Politics, Preston City Centre, Preston Council, Preston News, Redevelopment
A view along Church Street in Preston city centre with prominent abandoned buildings Pic: Blog Preston

From the Minster down to Ringway is a historic part of the city centre which has been left to rot.

Approaching five years from the announcement of the Stoneygate Masterplan – has anything happened?

We’ve explored a recent upturn in fortunes for what has so long been a sadly lacking part of Preston’s city centre.

A complex web of ownership, the shadow of the collapsed Tithebarn scheme in the early-2010s and dilapidated buildings on the site of former mills continue to characterise the Church Street area.

The Masterplan – unveiled in summer 2019 by Preston City Council and its partners – proudly boasted how the stretch of land between Church Street and Queen Street could become ‘the new Ancoats’ – an area of Manchester city centre associated with redevelopment with former industrial buildings turned into new use with new flats and businesses.

Sketch showing a view from Church Street to Manchester Road roundabout
One of the jaunty sketches unveiled as part of the Masterplan – for the Stoneygate area running down from the Minster. Nothing has changed there since 2019.

In 2024 there’s little evidence of spades in the ground and it’s more ‘avoid that corner’ than Northern Quarter for Church Street. But in amongst the weathered buildings and cheap all-day car parks there are hopes new life and homes could start to rise up from post-industrial wasteland.

We’ve also mapped all the developments we’re aware of in and around the Stoneygate area – and looked at the status of each of them. Use the map below or see them, or tap for Google Maps or tap for Google Earth if you want to go 3D. Green plots of land mean planning application approved or work ongoing, amber means plans lodged and red means uncertain or no plans.

An architectural view – what will make Stoneygate and the city centre work

Alban Cassidy, of Cassidy + Ashton and also a founding member of The Preston Partnership, told Blog Preston: “Every city centre needs that catalyst to get going when it comes to development. I remember being surprised when the Stoneygate scheme came out by the ambition of it – it was very bullish.

“In Preston’s case then the Animate [cinema] scheme has definitely given investors confidence and helped provide movement for the Church Street area indirectly.

“There’s a snowball effect than then comes through, as one developer is able to see what another is doing and then estimate how it will work for them.

“We’ve always talked about how Preston on the Church Street side needs that statement building and that signal that you’re entering into the city – rather than just seeing a retail park.”

Read more: Opinion: 2024 marks a foundational year for Preston city centre’s redevelopment

David Cox, one of the city’s leading architects, says he is growing in confidence about how the City Living Strategy – with the city council encouraging residential development in the city centre such as offices being converted into flats – is coming together.

He said: “I think the big breakthrough has come in recent years when The Heaton Group in particular have shown you can drive up the value in Preston.

“I get people’s frustration when they see plans lodged and then never come to fruition but what John Heaton and co have done is show the city can support a value above £200 per square metre when it comes to apartments.

“This is crucial for then developers being able to actually raise capital to then invest in the city. Preston’s always been a good investment but because it’s outside of the big cities in the North then it’s always going to be more risky but there’s a growing confidence now.”

Mr Cox practices what he preaches about living in the city centre, residing just a stones throw from his offices in Ribblesdale Place.

He said his wife, who is German, was a big factor in wanting to be within the city itself and he feels the city can support having more families living centrally.

He said: “It is a more European-style of living but what Preston has in its city centre is schools, parks, access, it has a bit of everything which a lot of other cities don’t have that mix. That makes it viable for families to live in the city and we need housing to support this transition.

“When you’ve got something as beautiful as Avenham Park on your doorstep then as a city we have to really make the most of that.”

Asked about the Stoneygate Masterplan and a recent surge of developments in the Church Street area, many of which Mr Cox and team are designing, he said: “People are waking up to that opportunity to invest in Preston with the likes of the Belgravia group and others coming in.

“They are seeing the land value rise and being able to support some of the larger schemes now, and while these may be ambitious the developers are given confidence by other schemes coming to fruition and also the further development in the likes of the Animate cinema in the city.

“Stoneygate itself is a complicated area to develop because there has been a patchwork ownership effect of land and the city council itself doesn’t own much land either which means it can’t instigate the kind of developments you’ve seen in the likes of Liverpool or Manchester which are large-scale private-public partnership developments.”

Read more: See all redevelopment news from Blog Preston

The complex web of land ownership in and around the Church Street area has regularly been a stumbling block to developments getting going in the area.

Blog Preston met with John Bridge, another architect who has been involved in a number of schemes in the city centre and who isn’t afraid of imagining what Preston could look like in the future.

He showed plans for a potential area of Stoneygate which had been drawn up for a relatively small plot of land, but Blog Preston understands due to there being at least six different land owners it was hard to get traction for these.

Mr Bridge said: “It is frustrating, as you can see the potential in a lot of these spaces but it involves a group of people getting together and saying ‘okay, we can do this, or we can take this risk’.

“I am concerned by the elements in the chain of developments where there’s rising costs of land but also rising costs of actually building due to labour and materials.

“It’s interesting how The Heaton Group, because they control some of the elements in the chain themselves rather than sub contracting have been able to insulate themselves from some of the inflationary pressures that have scuppered other schemes.”

Mr Bridge said he could see the rise of more city-based living areas but also questioned whether the work was there for those who may want to live within the city centre.

He said: “To make the city centre work then you need to attract a good footfall for both daytime and night-time. At the moment then the majority of those in and around the city centre aren’t actually working there, so you need developments like the Station Quarter and other office developments to come through and give that reason for being close-by to the city for work and then it convinces people to relocate as they are spending time here.”

Read more: Fishergate Shopping Centre could be demolished as part of railway station plans

Onward! Social housing a key component of the Stoneygate plan

The current site which is the former Horrocks Mill is a scrubby patch of land running from Queen Street through to Church Street.

As Blog Preston tour the site on a rain-soaked day with Sandy Livingstone, executive director of property with Onward Homes, he is bullish about their ability to deliver close to 400 new homes on the site.

Previously owned by the Brookhouse Group, it is part temporary (even if it’s been there for decades) car park and part barren post-industrial wasteland.

An aerial view showing the Horrocks Mill scheme fronting onto Church Street Pic: Onward

Cotton Court sits as a small developed island at its northern edge, a listed church and terraced housing sit on the western edge along Grimshaw Street, while early 1970s tired-looking social housing peers across from the southern end and Aldi and the Queen Street retail park border to the east.

Sandy said: “The levels and boundaries of the site mean there’s real complexity to what we’ve got to do.

“Up near Cotton Court then we are going to have to spend a lot of time working on the levels, as it really drops away rapidly down towards Church Street.”

He said Onward are determined it is not a scheme which will have to sacrifice quality – despite so many unknowns until they begin digging on the site, which he expects to be during 2025.

He said: “That top end by Church Street and then the section along Grimshaw Street near the church and the housing is important we really take care there and we have to ensure the scheme is set back sufficiently.”

Onward’s board have decided to make a sweeping change to the company’s current housing stock in the city. Much of it is currently in the high-rise blocks which can be seen from the Horrocks site.

The Horrocks Mill site looking back towards the current Onward tower blocks in Queen Street and Avenham Pic: Blog Preston
The Horrocks Mill site looking back towards the current Onward tower blocks in Queen Street and Avenham Pic: Blog Preston

Two of the blocks are mainly empty now, with one left to see the majority of tenants moved out.

Sandy said: “It is difficult but the decision has been taken we must have modern and fit-for-purpose places for people and families to live.

“I want to ensure we’re building the best-in-class social housing here and we want it to be a legacy development that also helps to really drive this area of the city.”

Executive director of property at Onward Homes, Sandy Livingstone, pictured at the Horrocks Mill site Pic: Blog Preston
Executive director of property at Onward Homes, Sandy Livingstone, pictured at the Horrocks Mill site Pic: Blog Preston

Sandy is passionate about the need for upgrading of social housing and says he has been frustrated by the inertia from central government in particular.

He said: “Preston has huge potential but sites like this are tricky. We need Homes England and other big partners to help us to ensure this is a success.

“We are pushing hard, along with the city council, to access the likes of the Brownfield Infrastructure and Land fund.

“If we do that, then no matter what happens with the actual build we know we have the support and resources from that fund to build at scale and pace here in Preston.”

The £1billion fund was launched in July last year and was recently in the headlines as Blackpool secured a £90m regeneration investment to build new homes in some of the most deprived areas. There are certainly parallels to the Church Street area.

Sandy said: “There’s been a lot of working over the past few years to do what we can with the housing we have in and around Queen Street and Avenham.

“As well as the Horrocks Mill scheme then we’ll also be looking at how we can give the Queen Street homes an uplift and you’ll see an enormous amount of activity around here from 2025 – no matter what happens with further funding because we will be building regardless.

“We’ll also be taking down the current tower blocks, I’m afraid it’s not a demolition job with explosives because of how close they are to other buildings.

“Our intention is then to ensure we’re building more homes on the sites once the tower blocks come down.

“We cannot afford to have fewer social homes in the city centre, we need more. That’s our commitment and we are aligned with the city council on that.”

Preston City Council recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Onward which will see up to 20 of the properties on the Horrocks Mill site bought and owned by the city council, the first time they will directly own housing in two decades.

Hands tied or lacking drive? What the city council can do

Charged with delivering on the city council’s Stoneygate Masterplan is Chris Blackburn who is Assistant Director (Head of City Growth & Regeneration) at Preston City Council and was one of the authors of the vision for the area.

He said: “It’s important to remember Stoneygate does not sit alone as part of the proposal for improving the city centre – there’s been successful movement for the Harris Quarter with the markets, cinema and Harris itself.

“We want to promote residential for this part of the city centre. That is the potential for everywhere between Church Street through to Queen Street as we have large swathes of land as surface car parks right now. This was the background to bringing in the Stoneygate Masterplan as it is the right set of buildings, land and facilities for there to be housing and apartments in this area of the city.

“Unlike other parts of the city centre the ownership of land in the Stoneygate area means we as a city council can’t have a direct role like we’ve had with the Harris Quarter for example.

“We can encourage and bring people together to try and find ways forward but as a council we do not own much land in this area – historically it has lots of different land owners.”

Read more: Preston Animate cinema reaches highest point in construction

Mr Blackburn implied there were still some people who had the collapse of the Tithebarn scheme – where a major retail centre was planned with John Lewis, Marks and Spencer and other national chains anchoring the scheme – and bordered the Church Street area – very much in their mind when it came to land values.

He said: “I think there’s land values which some of the owners of buildings in and around Church Street have in their heads still. But Tithebarn has been and gone, it’s not a reality, you are not going to get that value or us coming along and compulsory purchasing.”

An area that acts as a microcosm of the challenges facing the Church Street area is what Mr Blackburn says is an area known as ‘St Johns’ – a run of buildings from the Minster running down to Manchester Road.

The run of buildings known as ‘St Johns’ with the Old Dog in the centre of them Pic: Blog Preston

He said: “If you take the Old Dog and the block of buildings there then I think there’s something like 12 different owners involved.

“You’ve got old buildings, listed buildings, run-down buildings, and lots of different uses for the buildings.

“As a district council we do not have the resources to compulsory purchase that kind of block, like say Blackpool or Blackburn could, and then move that forward.

“That is the big difference compared to major places like Manchester and Liverpool – you’ve got councils able to hand developers chunks of cash to effectively de-risk taking on a complex development opportunity like say St Johns.

“We are seeing some movement now as part of that run of buildings does have plans in now via the Averil Group but it’s a shame they haven’t been able to go all the way along.”

Mr Blackburn says he feels it’s going to take at least another five years before Prestonians start to see substantial change along Church Street.

He said: “The Onward scheme at Horrocks Mill is absolutely crucial. We are working closely with them on that as it aligns both with the council politically, and the desire for more social housing from the Labour group but also with the Masterplan itself.

“Once we see schemes like that beginning then we’ve got the evidence to go for major funding to then improve the street scene along Church Street and surrounding roads.

“With Fishergate and others areas there’s been extensive work but you can see where it stops. This should have carried on but the money just wasn’t there to keep it going beyond where it stops by the Minster and Wetherspoons.”

Mr Blackburn pointed to The Heaton Group as an example of the kind of development the city council was keen to support in the city centre.

He said: “The quality of build that’s now happening through Bishopsgate and The Exchange is really encouraging. This is then stimulating the rest of the market in the city as developers are seeing a way forward to achieve the kind of values needed to make their schemes viable.

“As a council then we will always be supportive of schemes which are viable and for good quality housing and builds in the city.

“What’s important is investors, and the public, have confidence in the schemes that are coming forward.”

The city council has recently made a political change for where redevelopment sits within the cabinet portfolio.

It was removed from the role of deputy leader when councillor Peter Moss – who launched the Stoneygate Masterplan – left the Labour group in February 2022 and stood down as a councillor in May that same year and the brief has since been bouncing around different cabinet members after previously being aligned with the cabinet member for planning and regulation.

In February this year the redevelopment brief moved into the remit of the cabinet member for community wealth building councillor Valerie Wise.

Mr Blackburn said: “We’ve not had much time as of yet to work with Valerie, but she’s an experienced politician and former city council leader so it will be interesting to see how we move things forward with her in post.”

Councillor Wise told Blog Preston: “Stoneygate Masterplan is the regeneration link to the City Council’s long-standing aspiration to deliver the first Council-owned social housing in Preston in a generation. Evidence shows that despite over 400 affordable homes being built in Preston in the last year, the highest in Lancashire and for many years, there remains a need for more, as current demands exceeds supply and there are long waiting lists for those most in need. There is also a greater reliance on privately rented homes, many of which are in a poor condition and hard to heat, resulting in a rise in fuel poverty.

“By partnering with Onward Homes, who recently received outline planning permission for over 300 homes in the inner city, Stoneygate area, discussions are ongoing for the Council to potentially acquire some of these homes being developed in the area over the next few years. This aligns the Council’s Community Wealth Building principles with city centre regeneration and would provide a more resilient, inclusive and fair society.”

Wigan grit a key part of why momentum has shifted

Throughout conversations about city centre redevelopment then fingers were pointed in the direction of The Heaton Group.

Why? Their portfolio in the city centre has been steadily building and Bishopsgate Gardens, where a series of former offices in Lancaster Road North and Ormskirk Road were converted into upmarket apartments have sold well and achieved a value not previously seen in Preston.

It’s made developer – and most importantly accountants – spreadsheets start to balance out and add up as the city previously struggled with being seen as an attractive place to invest.

Managing director of of The Heaton Group, John Heaton, said: “We’re on our sixth development in the city and it’s been building up gradually over the years from down on West Cliff with the old sorting office, then Bishgopsgate, The Exchange and then we’ll be doing The Park Hotel.

“We knew when we took it [The Exchange] on from the Bhailok family that it was going to be an important development – not just for that area near Stoneygate but also for the wider city.

“What we do is you have to raise that standard, because it’s what people expect now. There’s all these facilities when it comes to apartments and if you’re going to attract people to live then it needs to be an attractive place to live.”

John Heaton

Mr Heaton, who is Wigan born-and-bred, said part of their mix has been they are a building company by background, so as well as development they keep their building contracts primarily in-house.

He said: “We’re a North West firm, a family firm, this is the sixth generation of builders and we do the building ourselves and that gives us an element of control over the process.

“It’s also about taking a bet, I remember speaking to the council when we took on that Pole Street site from the Bhailoks and there wasn’t much going on there at that time. But you need someone to go out and do it and then other things follow and over time you just get a good sense of when that is going to happen.”

The Exchange scheme sits on the edge of the Stoneygate Masterplan boundary and Mr Heaton said there were very minor parts of the front of the building being finished before it was formally completed – running a few months behind schedule.

He said: “There’s a few bits with the retail units down the front which need fixing up and then we’ll be able to say The Exchange is all done.

“We keep operating the buildings though, as we’ve done with Bishopsgate, that’s important to us. We don’t just build them and then leave, we stay committed and connected with where we’ve developed.”

Signs of life and the view of someone who hasn’t waited

Not everyone is sitting and waiting in Church Street, in amongst the abandoned buildings there are signs of life.

A recent fit-out of new units at the corner of Pole Street has seen a new Thai eatery Khao Thai Eatery starting to receive good reviews and give a foodie reason for visiting that end of the city centre.

Former pub The Lamb, for many years a rotting set of bedsits, has been given a face-lift Pic: Blog Preston

Meanwhile at the end of Church Street close to the junction with Ringway the former The Lamb pub – for many years left to rot as run-down bedsits – has new windows in and plans to upgrade it.

One of those who has stuck with the Stoneygate area and invested is Rob Binns, the owner of the Cotton Court business centre.

He will be staying put as the Onward scheme is built around his old mill building which has been operating for more than a decade as a conference and office space.

He said: “While others sat and land banked in the wake of the Tithebarn collapse we decided to do things differently.

“There was a great opportunity to create something within Cotton Court and over the last decade we’ve done that.

“You can see the potential with the area and I think as the Onward scheme in particular comes forward then it will start to link up.”

Rob Binns, pictured at Cotton Court

Rob laments the current street scene and lack of connectivity in his section of Church Street – citing how at the moment there’s no way to nip across to the retail park from Cotton Court.

He said: “What you’ll see is hopefully as the larger schemes come forward it will give a big lift to the rest of Church Street too. We know there’s going to be some disruption, but you can live with it right, we’ve lived with it before and we have good dialogue with the developers and it’s about making sure people know when things are happening so we can plan and minimise that disruption. But if you’re going to build something there’s going to be heavy piling and digging right, there’s no getting away from that.

“At the same time we also need to be realistic about what’s going to be built. It’s great how people have these big ideas but the schemes need to be viable, we don’t want to end up with a reputation like other cities have for big schemes that go nowhere.”

The Church Street area’s potential rejuvenation could also be a catalyst for solving some of the city’s challenges when it comes to retail and nightlife.

Rob said: “When you’ve got people living in close proximity to a city centre then it’s going to drive up footfall. No matter what business you’re in, you need that throughput of people.

“When these apartment blocks start having people living in them, and you get something like the Horrocks Mill, then you’re going to then see a knock on impact to retail in particular.

“People have got to have somewhere to shop, somewhere to eat, and that’s when you get people saying ‘okay yeah, I’ll take a chance on doing this thing in Preston’.

“At the moment then the city is always going to be further down the list of priorities for your big chains or your independents because it doesn’t have the appeal of other places. I think as the Stoneygate scheme progresses that changes, because you’ve got thousands more people living on the doorstep.”

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