The news that John Lewis had decided to pull out of the planned £700 million Tithebarn project was a big disappointment to anyone who genuinely cares about the future of Preston, but in all honesty few of us were surprised when the news came through on Wednesday afternoon.
The plans for this hugely ambitious scheme were first hatched back in 1999. Since then the project has been clouded in controversy. The local heritage lobby objected strongly to proposals that would have seen the bus station re-located. Three years ago the original preferred developer, Grosvenor, withdrew from the scheme. And in the background a fierce battle raged between Preston City Council and it’s local authority neighbours in Blackpool and Blackburn.
By the time the final legal challenge to Tithebarn had been overcome, in June this year, we were in the middle of the worst economic downturn for a generation, and a major regeneration initiative such as that proposed in the middle of an economic boom twelve years ago now looked risky to many, and absolute madness to others.
In some quarters there will now be a desire to navel gaze, indulge in a ‘blame game’ and, from the cynics who always said Tithebarn would never happen, a temptation to say ‘we told you so.’
Aside from the fact that the seeds of this projects problems were sewn by civic leaders who have now left the stage, the debate as to whose fault all of this is takes us nowhere fast.
Preston City Council, It’s partners and the business community must work together to find an alternative solution to regenerate what is a declining city. Investment, renewal and jobs are desperately needed, and that can only be done with the genuine engagement of the private sector.
Downtown has brought two significant and serious investors to Preston. The reception they received was, to say the least, lukewarm. Perhaps there will be more appetite from the city’s senior decision makers to have a more constructive dialogue with interested parties in the future.
It should also be said that it is not all doom and gloom. The planning permissions that have been won will be a useful carrot to dangle for potential future developers. A private sector led community interest group is exploring ways in which Winckley Square can be revived. Commercial offices will be developed in the city centre. And surely the current city leadership will see the sense in offering a solution that is more practical, realistic and deliverable.
The one thing we should demand of them is that they do this quickly. Preston cannot afford another decade of stagnation.