After the scheme for ruining Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen (Eye 1219) comes another example of large sums of public money being available to spoil something.
Winckley Square in Preston is a Late Georgian and early Victorian development of great charm, while the extensive gardens in the centre make a wonderful oasis so close to the city centre. The gardens are particularly remarkable as the land is not flat and is laid out in an informal manner, As Pevsner put it back in 1969: "Preston is lucky to have such a
square … to have this quarter so near the centre is the rarest of advantages.”
Like Preston 's other parks, the gardens have been neglected but have survived because of restrictive covenants dating from 1654 and an agreement of 1951 with the then local corporation that the character of all "enclosed ornamental square gardens" must be preserved and that they must not be used for any other purpose.
Despite this Preston city council and the North West Development Agency held a competition earlier this year to "redevelop" Winckley Square to complement the monstrous Tithebarn Project shopping centre which will sweep away the city's rather decent 1960s bus station. The Cooper Partnership, a "design consultancy" based in Bristol, won the competition with a scheme the council says is "innovative and striking". There will be granite
walkways and lots of fibre-optic lights, and the centre-piece will be a 64-jet fountain, of pink and grey granite, which, when turned off, will double as a stage for musical events. All this requires the levelling of the centre of the square and chopping down about a quarter of its trees. The compensation? There is to be the "creative use of sculpture and metal artwork". This includes scattering about giant letters which would spell out "Winckley Square".
Councillor Anthony Gornall, chair of the judges, said: "We were blown away by the quality of the winning design - it is ... contemporary, yet subtle ... " In fact it is a tired and gimmicky re-hash of Post-Modem ideas fashionable in the late 20th century. Others are unimpressed, and the Preston Historical Society and the Preston & South Ribble Civic Trust together with some of the residents and co-owners of the square have condemned the plans. In particular, the only architect among the judges, Keith Scott, has disowned the project saying it "misses the point". It would also contravene the 1854 and 1951 covenants and agreements, especially as an entertainment licence will have to be sought if the stage is ever used if the 64 fountain jets are turned off (not that it is likely they will work for long: the city council maintains the gardens).
Because of the protests, the silly idea of hanging metal letters from the surviving trees has been dropped, but the development agency is still willing to come up with £3m to carry out the rest of the design. Preston council has not consulted either the Garden History Society or the Victorian Society and took five months before bothering to inform and request the consent of a major co-owner, the Trustees for Catholic Purposes (St Wilfrid's Presbytery is in Winckley Square). Whether the council will ever be able to afford to ruin Winckley Square remains doubtful, however. Work on restoring and improving two other parks in Preston, Avenham and Miller Parks, is likely to come to a halt for want of £ l.4m. A pity, as those parks need attention, while what Winckley Square needs is a careful, informed and
scholarly restoration. Roll on the recession.
PS: Still in Preston, St Walburge's, the magnificent Victorian Catholic church with its towering spire by J.A. Hansom (Eye 1198), remains threatened. For although English Heritage has offered a large "Places of Worship Maintenance Grant", on condition it remains open, and locals are busy fund-raising, the wretched Lancaster Diocese is still determined to close this wonderful building.