Preston Hostpots: Station vision is far from derailed

By Ged Henderson

02 Apr 2024

Preston Hotspots Group Photo
Richard Slater
Lancashire Business View
(Chair)
Kimberley Barrett-St.Vall
AfterAthena
Rob Binns
Cotton Court
Chris Blackburn
Preston City Council
John Bridge
John Bridge Architects
Russ Millhouse
UCLan
Rizwan Seth
W_RKSPACE
 Deborah Smith
Smith and Love Planning

Chris Blackburn is confident. “The Station Quarter will go ahead. It will happen,” he predicts. “We will get that grade A office space.”

The confidence expressed by Preston’s head of growth and regeneration will be music to the ears of those who have long been highlighting the disadvantage the city has because of its lack of quality office space.

Chris pulls no punches. He says: “It’s not a headline that we like, that there’s been no new office floorspace delivered in the city for a few decades. We know that’s absolutely appalling for a place like Preston and that’s our focus.”

The Preston Station Quarter plan aims to change all that by steering development in the area around the railway station, aiming to capitalise on its transport links by bringing in jobs and investment.

The blueprint is based on delivering high quality grade A office space to provide both public and private sector organisations with the kind of facilities in the city that they currently lack.

The quarter centres on an area around the station as well as the areas around the Fishergate Shopping Centre, County Hall and a corridor stretching towards the university. The city and county councils and the university have all been involved in its early planning.

Part of the argument for investment was the station becoming a main stop for HS2 services in the future. That has disappeared as a result of the government decision to scrap the section of the high-speed rail project that would have linked Birmingham with the North West.

Chris is undeterred. He says: “HS2 was certainly, let’s say, the icing on the cake for the station regeneration, but it wasn’t the basis upon which it was built. It was an added benefit but it wasn’t what it was hinged on.

“At the end of the day the connectivity to Preston railway station is fantastic, London within a few hours. Really, that’s great.

“The railway station itself does need a lot of investment and we’re working very hard with Network Rail to try and coordinate what that looks like.”

He adds that the owners of the Fishergate Centre have aspirations to deliver Grade A workspace on what is currently its car park. They are also looking at existing floorspace in the centre itself.

Chris says: “If you rewind back five years, if you asked me whether we would see new builds, high rise blocks delivering viable, fully occupied residential units in the city, I would have said that sounds like a bit of a pipe dream. But we’re there.

“Can we deliver the office space? We absolutely can and I think over the next three to four years we’ll see that.”

City businessman Rob Binns, a board member of the Preston Partnership, believes the arrival of National Cyber Force in Samlesbury is a massive opportunity for the Station Quarter as its new headquarters acts as a magnet for other organisations and businesses.

He adds: “The key is having grade A provision that will attract everything, from civil servants to growing companies.

“We need accommodation which will attract businesses and organisations of all sizes so that our graduates and the people who are living with the city can have their first and last job in the city centre.”

John Bridge, of Studio John Bridge Architects, agrees a station gateway would give visitors to the city a sense of destination.

He also points to existing office spaces in the city and opportunities to reinvent them. John says: “There’s a lot that we could do with those buildings, rather than just turning them to residential, which we’ve seen in the past. It is about having the right kind of workspaces.”

Those workspaces are important when it comes to spin-off businesses from the university as they move from start-up status and begin their growth journeys.

Russ Millhouse, head of external and public affairs at UCLan, says: “We have a fantastic hit rate. What we need is the ‘grow on’ space to help them take the next step.”

Away from the station project there are encouraging signs when it comes to the provision of better city centre office space.

The £7.4m transformation of Amounderness House – Preston’s Grade II-listed former magistrates’ court – is underway. The historic building in the Harris Quarter, which has stood empty for more than 20 years, is being turned into a modern, flexible workspace hub that will be operated by W_rkspace.

Rizwan Seth, managing director of W_rkspace, says: “Amounderness House will definitely be an addition, but there’s a lot more scope for grade A office space.

“We’ve got the university which has got incredible talent. We just don’t have the facilities to retain business in the city centre.”

He says many businesses are working out of several offices because they have no choice and adds: “Companies are just getting on the train and going to Manchester or Liverpool. Preston desperately needs good office space.”

Rizwan believes more office provision can play its part in preventing a “doughnut affect” with the city centre hollowed out as businesses head to out-of-town, where parking and access may be easier.

He also says there are buildings in Preston that could be repurposed, pointing to his company’s transformation of the derelict Old Docks House into a thriving business centre.

There are other projects emerging. In February real estate investor and developer Branco Capital announced it had appointed OneCoWork to operate a planned premium coworking centre in Winckley Square.

It will be the first UK location for OneCoWork, which operates three centres in Barcelona with high profile clients including Fortune 500 companies.

The managed and flexible office hub will provide more than 500 desks for individuals, teams and businesses.

Ben Nachoom, chief executive of OneCoWork, says: “Preston provides us with an opportunity to make a significant impact on the local entrepreneurial and business community.”

Deborah Smith, owner of Smith and Love Planning, would like to see less development work around defined residential, office and leisure areas and a more mixed approach. She describes it as “more layering of different uses” which could make access to investment easier. Kimberley Barrett-St Vall is a partner at AfterAthena, part of the Napthen’s law group.

It is currently looking to move from its current Winckley Square offices and she says it is looking to stay in the city centre.

She compares Preston’s offer to the firm’s Liverpool operation and says: “You go there for the day with all the shared spaces, retail on the bottom, breakout rooms; we’re competing with that. So, when our staff come back after a visit to Liverpool, they’re looking around and thinking, this isn’t ideal.”

Kimberley, who also points to Preston’s lack of seminar and conferencing facilities, says that when it comes to office space: “Available properties have to be there to suit the needs that are in demand.”

Enjoyed this? Read more from Ged Henderson

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