Friday, 13 March 2009

Canal Corridor: Alternative Scheme Revealed



SAVE’s scheme for Lancaster's Canal Corridor site, drawn by Richard Griffiths Architects

After news that developer Centros has pulled out of the forthcoming Public Inquiry into its controversial Canal Corridor scheme for Lancaster (see news story), campaign group SAVE Britain’s Heritage has revealed its own blueprint for the regeneration of the area.

The current scheme from retail developer Centros, backed by Lancaster City Council, became the first application in the north west of England to be "called in" for Public Inquiry since 2001. Described by SAVE as ‘astonishingly destructive’ and heavily criticised by English Heritage and other bodies, the proposals involve the demolition of over 30 buildings, 18 of them within conservation areas, and the obliteration of a medieval street pattern.

Centros has now backed out of the Public Inquiry, leaving Lancaster City Council to fight it alone, a situation SAVE’s Secretary William Palin describes as "chaotic and embarrassing."

Announcing its decision, Centros also criticised the Government for calling in the company’s development proposals for the £140m regeneration of the 10-acre brownfield site in Lancaster city centre.

"I understand it there is no precedent for the applicant and developer failing to attend an Inquiry of this kind," says Mr Palin. "The council which will now be faced with a huge legal bill for what will in all likelihood be an open and shut case, with the application refused."

With the Centros application in apparent disarray, SAVE has commissioned acclaimed conservation architect Richard Griffiths to produce an alternative vision for the eight-hectare
site.

The drawings show how the existing network of streets and courtyards with their characterful mix of 18th and 19th century sandstone buildings could be retained and transformed to produce a vibrant and intimate area of shops, restaurants, arts uses, workspace and housing, with the possibility of a new area of retail and housing to the north of the site.

"In the current financial climate there is little appetite for large, brash, retail schemes and Centros’s reluctance to push the scheme forward has confirmed this," argues Mr Palin. "If the council is serious about long-term regeneration then it should be advocating a conservation-led scheme which will create a real place and dovetail with the rest of this beautiful, historic city.

"The first stage in achieving this is to produce a masterplan that can be implemented in phases as funding becomes available. If the council has real aspirations for this part of the city it should be looking at examples such as Covent Garden or those guided by Richard Griffiths at Oxford Castle and King’s Cross, London.

"Now is the perfect time for Lancaster City Council to engage with other architects and developers and produce a new vision to unlock the wonderful potential of this site."

"The Lancaster Canal Corridor is an area of great charm, a charm that is veiled because of the current derelict condition of the site," feels Richard Griffiths. "We believe it can be transformed through conservation-led regeneration as a focus for development of the site, contributing to the wider regeneration of Lancaster as a whole.

"The Canal Corridor has the potential to become a creative hub for the town with a rich variety of uses."

The SAVE scheme has been endorsed by local group It's Our City, which has been a fierce opponent of the Centros plans.

"IoC fully supports the conservation-led alternative presented here by SAVE and Richard Griffiths," says Cal Giles, the group’s Co-ordinator.

Links
It's Our City Campaign Site
Centros' Castle View Development Site
Council Regeneration Strategy documents on the council web site (PDF files)

Post Office Privatisation: The Case Crumbles, says MP

Local MP Geraldine Smith challenged Prime Minister on government plans to privatise the Post Office this week, arguing the case for the scheme was "crumbling".

"The case for the partial sale of Royal Mail is crumbling and opposition is growing across the country and in this House," she argued during PM Questions on Wednesday, continuing her campaign against the plans.

"Is it not about time that the Government dropped that unwanted and unnecessary measure from its postal services reforms?"

The Prime Minister, sadly, was not to be swayed, despite the disastrous effects privatisation have had elsewhere. "I know that my hon. Friend has never been a supporter of the course of action that the Government have proposed, but I ask the House to look at this issue, " he replied. "The Royal Mail has a pension fund deficit that is going to approach £8 billion. It has investment needs that it needs to meet for the future. It also wants to continue, as we want it to continue, the universal service obligation.

"It makes sense to try to find additional investors in the Royal Mail to enable us to meet our commitment to the pensioners, to maintain the universal service obligation, to keep the post office network, with the additional investment that we are making in it, and of course to give maximum support to the postal workers in our country, whom I support as well."

None of that will please Geraldine, who last month condemned plans for the part privatisation of the service, saying "...There has been talk of dinosaurs, but the only dinosaurs are those people who do not realise that privatisation is going out of fashion.

"We have had to rescue the fat cat bankers who got us into so many difficulties and we are nationalising the banks, so privatisation is not the British public's flavour of the month." (see news story).

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Centros pulls out of Canal Corridor Planning Inquiry

Developers Centros have announced they will not appear at the forthcoming public inquiry into the proposed Canal Corridor development scheme, leaving an already financially troubled City Council to stump up funds and defend the plans it has approved.

Announcing its decision, Centros, which claims it has long championed "full community involvement" in its projects from long before it became part of Government planning guidance, also criticised the Government for calling in the company’s development proposals for the £140m regeneration of the 10-acre brownfield site in Lancaster city centre.

Commenting on Centros announcemnt, campaign group It's Our City told virtual-lancaster they had spoken with the case officer at the Planning Inspectorate and have been told that unless Centros formally withdraw their applications the Inquiry will still go ahead, although, without the applicant being present the Inspector will probably open and then close the proceedings.

This means, however, that It's Our City and the other parties (SAVE, English Heritage and the City Council) will still have to continue to prepare a full case to present to the Inquiry. Council taxpayers will therefor be paying for the Council to defend the scheme which is being proposed by a companty's whose partners include Delancey, who bought Miller’s 50% equity stake in what was then Centros Miller in January last year and took on Centros Miller’s debt. In 2007, Delancey completed the last of a tranche of deals that saw it sell £1.5bn of investment, largely office, property – an indication, surely, critics say, that Centros could easily afford to fight its own battles and not leave them to a cash-strapped City Council to defend.

"Centros have pulled out of defending their proposed scheme at a public forum where for the first time it would be scrutinised in detail. Obviously they have conceded that the scheme is in fact indefensible," says It's Our City spokesperson Cal Giles.

"The question now is, will the city council use council tax payer's money to fight their case for them? Clearly, it would be a disgrace for the city council to decide to do so."

The company's criticism of government follows Centros’s highly successful opening last week of its £100 million arc development in Bury St Edmunds – which it argues has delivered hundreds of new jobs and claims has already been hailed a huge success by local people.

Centros executives have long railed against the British planning process on costs grounds. In July 2008, interviewd by the BBC's File on 4 for a feature on Urban Regeneration (PDF link), Centros Chief Executive Richard Wise argued the Government could do a lot more to help speed up the process.

Centros believes that the Government has unwittingly put the whole Lancaster regeneration project at risk at a time when the economy most needs investment and new jobs, and questioned the role played by English Heritage in campaigning for the call-in, having previously stated that it was happy for the local council to make the planning decision.

“Having been lobbied by English Heritage and local minority objector group “It’s Our City”, the Government has effectively valued a handful of mediocre unlisted buildings above the delivery of a major regeneration scheme and a thousand new jobs," argues Richard Wise, chief executive of Centros. "This is a complete contradiction of its policies and all the economic initiatives aimed at pulling the country out of recession.”

Centros believes that its Lancaster planning application should continue to stand on its own merits, as it has already stood up to extensive public scrutiny during a lengthy planning process that culminated in a special two-day City Council Planning Committee and a 15 : 4 vote in favour or the scheme.

It has therefore decided not to be represented at the forthcoming public inquiry.

“If the Government really wants to deliver much-needed regeneration for our city centres – especially in the current economic climate – then it must look carefully at both how it can encourage such development and reduce the level of bureaucracy hindering its delivery," said Richard Wise. "Further expenditure on our Lancaster planning application at this time would affect the scheme delivery and jeopardise some of the community benefits, and therefore there is no point in us spending up to another million pounds to be represented at the inquiry.

"While remaining fully committed to the project and Lancaster, we will simply await the outcome and only then decide how to progress the scheme further.”

It's Our City say that in the light of Centros refusal to back its plans in a public forum, the city council could now opt to abandon the scheme and "save themselves and the rest of us a great deal of time and expense over the next few months".

The group will meet next Monday to discuss developments.

Links
It's Our City Campaign Site
Centros' Castle View Development Site
Council Regeneration Strategy documents on the council web site (PDF files)

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Over 60s dive in for free swimming

Local public swimming pools will open their doors free of charge to people aged 60 and over from 1st April as part of the Government’s Swim4life initiative.

Part of the nationwide Change4Life campaign, Swim4life aims to get people to lead more active, healthy lives and free access will be available at any public casual swimming sessions at Lancaster City Council’s Salt Ayre Sports Centre and the community swimming pools in Heysham, Hornby and Carnforth.

Lancaster will receive £44,400 from central government funds to cover the predicted loss of income and increased administration costs and additional swimming lessons and is one of almost 300 local authorities across England to take part.

“Swimming is one of the most popular ways for people in this country to keep fit," said Coun Jane Fletcher, Cabinet member with responsibility for sport, welcoming the news. "Your body works harder in the water, so 30 minutes in the pool is worth 45 minutes activity on dry land.

"This is a great way of staying healthy, however good a swimmer you are. And because it’s low impact, it’s great for people who have problems with their joints or find exercise difficult.”

A council spokesperson told virtual-lancaster the Swim4life scheme will operate differently to free senior citizen concessionary travel, which has contributed to financial problems for the Council because it is being used by so many pensioners and they have not had enough funding for it.

"It's an entirely different situation to the concessionary travel because, with that, we reimburse the bus companies as per the number of passengers who use the scheme," the spokesperson explained. "With free swimming, we own the pools so the major cost is the loss of income."

To access the scheme, customers will first need to register at any of the swimming pools by completing a short form and by providing proof of their eligibility. A passport, the Lancashire Now Transport Card, driving licence, pension book or birth certificate are all acceptable forms of identification.

As the scheme is sure to prove popular, customers are being encouraged to pre-register for a personal swipe card prior to 1st April. All four swimming facilities will be offering pre-registrations from Wednesday 18th March.

• For information on the opening times of the swimming pools please visit www.lancaster.gov.uk/leisureinfo

Guardian, Visitor Owners Continued Financial Woes

With a staff freeze already in place at both the Lancaster Guardian and the Morecambe Visitor, there was more bad news for the local newspapers owner Johnston Press today when it announced a year-on-year drop in advertising revenue of more than 35% in the first months of 2009 as overall revenue fell by more than 12% last year.

The national Guardian reports the company, which also owns the Lancashire Evening Post, The Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post, has said it suffered the "greatest fall in revenue in its history", seeing revenues fall to £531.9m in 2008, a drop of 12.4% from the £607.5m it made the previous year, as advertising revenue in its UK businesses fell 16.8% in the UK and 22.6% in Ireland.

Costly regional acquisitions, including the purchase of the Scotsman, and the woes of the housing market have not helped the company: property advertising revenues in the UK dropped by 32.4% year on year to £54.3m.

Employment advertising also fell by 19.5% for the year to £82m and motor advertising is also down.

Johnston Press relies for much of its income on on local classified advertising and fully expects revenues to fall further, even though newspaper sales are fairly steady, down just 1% last year.

As we reported last month (see news story), the company has instituted a number of "cost reductions" which locally include moving the Lancaster Guardian and Morecambe Visitor's sub-editing to Blackpool and photographic resources to a central unit in Preston, after halving the numbers needed.

Nationally, the company has shed over 1100 jobs through both voluntary and compulsary redundancy, and even though it has reduced its overall debt, the Guardian notes it will have to renegotiate its debt facility with its banks in the coming year as current agreements are due to end in September 2010.

More cost savings look to be in the pipeline as the company looks to sell off its Irish newspaper titles and centralise aspects of its editorial operation across its UK businesses.

With the closure of Newsquest's Lancaster and Morecambe Citizen last year (see news story), this is all bad news for local people, with some fearing the Guardian and Visitor may yet merge to save even more money.

Some 53 local newspapers have closed in the last 13 months, according to a list compiled by media commentator Roy Greenslade, who noted back in The Guardian in January we are no longer being served with vital information about our communities as we see the "gradual diminution of the public service aspect of local newspapers." Sad times for local journalism...

BBC Report: Local Newspapers in Decline
(The BBC Trust rejected controversial plans to launch a £68m network of local news websites with video content last November. The plan was vigorously opposed by newspaper publishers, who argued that it could damage or kill off their own local online operations).

Monday, 9 March 2009

'Holiday at Home' for British Tourism Week 2009

A 'Taste of Lancashire Food' at Lancaster Tourist Information Centre. Photo via: www.britishtourismweek.com

Staff at Lancaster and Morecambe Visitor Information Centres are inviting customers to call in and help them celebrate British Tourism Week (March 23 to 29).

Now in its third year and backed by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, this national event aims to raise awareness of the size, value and importance of Britain’s £74 billion visitor economy.

Morecambe Visitor Information Centre will be offering visitors the chance to sample afternoon tea - as taken in many a seaside café - on Tuesday 24th March, and in Lancaster there will Scottish shortbread to sample throughout the week.

Both centres will be showcasing the types of holiday and attractions that are available in the UK.

“Tourism brought in £267million to the local economy last year and supports more than 4,000 jobs in the district," reveals Coun Shirley Burns, Cabinet member with responsibility for tourism. "The opportunities for developing the value of tourism to businesses in this area are great. Our area has so much to offer”.

• More information about British Tourism Week can be found at www.britishtourismweek.com