Eden looks for Sunak to deliver
Amid all the ‘levelling up’ announcements in Rishi Sunak’s much-anticipated March Budget, one flagship project was conspicuous by its absence.
There had been high hopes that a £70m funding bid for the transformational Eden Project North in Morecambe would be greeted favourably by the Chancellor and the Treasury.
Standing up in the Commons to deliver his speech, the chancellor declared the government was committed to its levelling up agenda and “spreading prosperity across every part of the UK”.
However, while Darlington got Treasury jobs, the new National Infrastructure Bank will be based in Leeds and Freeport locations on Teesside, Humberside and Merseyside were unveiled, there was no mention of north Lancashire.
Eden had submitted a strong business case to the government for the cash towards the total £125m cost of the project highlighting how the proposed attraction can be a key driver for a post-Covid green recovery in the North West.
Eden Project North is projected to attract around one million visitors a year and directly employ more than 400 people.
It estimates a visitor spend of more than £200m per year in the region - not including money spent at Eden Project North - which would support an additional 1,500 jobs.
Little wonder there was palpable disappointment at the absence of Eden from the Rishi Sunak’s list.
Now the attention has turned to the autumn spending review in October, when there is another chance for him to deliver for the seaside town. Those behind the Eden vision are hopeful.
Much work has gone on publicly and behind the scenes since March. As Lancashire Business View went to print the final touches were being made to a planning application before its submission.
A deal for the land where Eden will be built has also been agreed. Lancaster City Council, which owns the land, will transfer the site to Eden, subject to the company achieving planning permission and funding for the attraction.
The site, on Morecambe seafront, was formerly occupied by the Bubbles leisure complex and is next to the town’s iconic Midland Hotel.
As part of the agreement, as the development becomes established and visitor numbers reach an agreed level, a percentage of each ticket sold will be paid into a trust fund which will be used to benefit the local community.
Eden has also committed to a social value package, which will see locally sourced supplies and services being used, and local employment and training opportunities being provided.
Coun Caroline Jackson, leader of Lancaster City Council, says: “Eden Project North promises to be the most significant project in our district for a generation. It will provide huge benefits to our economy through a commitment to local purchasing and creation of good local jobs.
“I’m particularly pleased that our agreement with them includes the creation of a community fund, which will ensure the people of Morecambe directly benefit for generations to come.”
David Harland, chief executive of Eden Project International, says these are exciting times for the project and says “productive discussions” with the government are continuing. Looking towards the spending review, he says: “We are working very hard to ensure the North West doesn’t get forgotten.”
And he adds: “This project is without question shovel ready, subject to planning of course.
“It supported by the local community, it is in the North West, an area that both needs and deserves some attention, and a project like this will be the catalyst to wider investment as well. I think the government is hearing that.
“I get the sense people are just waiting for the decision. We’re getting a few things ready in the background and then this is about them all slotting into place.”
David says that the business community has got behind the project, which is vital to its success in transforming the fortunes of the area and there are encouraging signs of private investment locally. He adds: “We can’t do this in isolation, it has to be part of a wider development.”
Ross Shine is real estate partner at law practice Brabners, which has been supporting Lancaster City Council throughout the development process. He believes it is important the government also recognises Eden’s environmental and research role.
He says: “If we are to realise any of the commitments made to the region since the last election, it’s important that the North West seizes this opportunity to flex its sustainable credentials – and the Eden Project North is perfectly aligned in this respect.
“As part of the green revolution, the scheme will bring much-needed tourism, jobs and green expertise to Morecambe that will be vital to the region’s levelling up ambitions, particularly in light of the economic impact of Covid-19.”
Jenny Pape, tax partner at accountancy firm Azets Lancaster office, says that despite the lack of a formal announcement on government funding there is a “real buzz” in the area over the Eden Project and the impact it can have on its fortunes.
She adds: “The business and socio-impact for the town will be huge. With the local supply chain being utilised as far as possible, it is expected to create a substantial number of jobs with security for generations to come.”
There are other encouraging signs around the town’s regeneration. The council has also stepped in to buy the Frontierland site, a physical reminder of the declining fortunes of the resort.
It was previously home to a theme park which closed more than 20 years ago, since which there have been several failed re-development attempts by the private sector.
Most recently a retail-led scheme with a restaurant, pub, and hotel was proposed and approved by the council. However, planning permission has since expired, leaving the real possibility that the site would again be left to languish.
The council says it will now start to develop regenerations plans. Coun Tricia Heath, cabinet member with responsibility for economic recovery, says: “It has been left to decay for long enough already.
“By owning the land, we now have the potential to use the site to help drive the reinvention of the town and there are a number of options available that provide the opportunity to capitalise on the renewed interest that developers are showing in Morecambe.”
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