Chancellor Rishi Sunak awarded £37.5m to Southport in the Spring Budget and now it is revealed how the cash will transform the town. Andrew Brown reports
Town Deal funding will help to diversify Southport’s economy and transform the town into a place millions of people will want to visit throughout the year, according to the man heading the Town Deal initiative.
The Government allocated £37.5m in funding to Southport in the 2021 Spring Budget, after the Town Deal board submitted a range of projects which demonstrated that they could create jobs and attract further investment. It adds to £1m in Town deal Acceleration Grant funding which was allocated to Southport last year.
Central to Southport’s ambitions is the delivery of a new theatre, events and conference centre which will be bustling all year round. Infrastructure work will support Southport Pleasureland’s ambitions to become an all-weather attraction that entertains visitors across all 12 months.
The transformation of Southport Market into an exciting new food, drink and events venue will spark the regeneration of the Market Quarter, while new co-working and business incubator space will bring more than 300 workers into the town centre.
The Southport BID project to create “a boulevard of lights” along Lord Street with 300,000 new lights will create an attractive environment designed to bring in shoppers and diners. Public realm improvements in the town centre will further enhance the town’s appeal.
Southport Town Deal chair Rob Fletcher said: “A lot of work has already been done on creating a new events, theatre and conference centre in Southport. This is a bit further ahead than some of the other projects.
“Once we get the business case completed then we can progress to the planning stage. It is very exciting.”
The Town Deal schemes submitted all aim to help Southport to become a place where people visit throughout the year, shaking off its past as a seasonal ‘bucket and spade’ seaside resort.
The Town Deal board wants to see the new events, theatre and conference centre busy constantly, day and night, all year round. They estimate it will attract over 450,000 visitors a year, bringing £18m into the local economy and supporting local shops, restaurants, hotels and other businesses.
Infrastructure spending to support Southport Pleasureland will have a similar impact, creating 1,000 new jobs and bringing in £25m into the local economy each year. The new light show in the Marine Lake will also encourage visitors to come throughout the year.
Mr Fletcher added: “The new light show is very important. One of the things we need to do is to keep people in Southport longer, hopefully for overnight stays, and if not then we want to be able to keep them here into the evening so they can stay for a meal somewhere or enjoy a drink in town.
This is the key for us, to get people coming to Southport all year round. We are hoping that plans for the new Southport Cove surf resort on Princes Park will go ahead.
“People who love surfing will come to use it throughout the year. The new light show will help to bring the lake back into use – it is a really under-used asset. The plan for new co-working and incubator space is very important.
“Repurposing the Crown Buildings, above Cambridge Arcade, will be the first location used for this. This will be a good tester to see how well this scheme works. If it does then we can start to look for further space.
“One of the main themes of the Southport Town Deal is to try and prevent ‘youth flight’. We need to try and keep our young people in Southport and to create good opportunities for them.
“We have started offering legal apprenticeships with Fletchers Solicitors. People learn while they are with us. They don’t need to get themselves £30,000-£40,000 in debt while they are studying away at university. We want to diversify Southport’s economy and offer better prospects to our young people.
“Michelle Brabner, the CEO and Principal of Southport College and KGV College, is very keen to develop this side of things. The need to diversify Southport’s economy is the point I made when I was speaking with the civil servants.”
Southport, along with towns and cities across the UK, is facing challenges to the high street. A growth in online retail and the impact of the pandemic have taken their toll on a number of national chains. In the past year, Southport town centre has lost businesses including: Beales, Debenhams, Genting Casino, Bon Marche, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, Outfit, Frankie & Benny’s and Pizza Express.
There have been positives too. The former BHS department store on Chapel Street is being converted into a Prestige Stay aparthotel with shops and a bar on the ground floor. The former Taskers Sports on Corporation Street is being turned into the new HQ for tech firm Techedia, creating 70 jobs.
Mr Fletcher said: “During the Town Deal consultation people talked a lot about filling empty shops, particularly along Lord Street. Retail is taking a knock everywhere. In Southport it is particularly visible because we have such a long row of shops along Lord Street. When you see shops which have closed it is like looking at a row of teeth with some missing, It is very noticeable.
“The retail environment is changing. There will be a move into more people living in the town centre. This will generate its own momentum, with new shops and other businesses being needed to support that new population.
I do know that there has already been some interest in the former Debenhams and Beales department stores on Lord Street, which closed last year. Who the interest is from, I don’t know. But the fact that we are already getting interest in both of these buildings is very positive.
We believe the Southport Town Deal funding is going to ultimately lead to a further £400m of private investment into the town. Lots of confidential conversations have already been going on behind the scenes. Major investors are attracted by huge funding success like this.”
Evidence of this is already being seen. The grand Royal Clifton Hotel on the Promenade, which is on the market for £6m with Christie & Co, is situated between Southport Theatre and Southport Pleasureland – two of the sites due to be elevated through Town Deal funding.
The landmark site is currently under offer with new owners eager to move in.
Rob Fletcher added: “The Royal Clifton is a lovely hotel. It is great news that it is getting taken over. New hotels will be very keen to come to our town with all the opportunities to attract millions of new visitors being created.”
The determination to improve Souhtport’s fortunes won’t stop with the award of Town Deal funding. This huge success is just the start of a process, a catalyst to spark a bright new future for Southport.
The schemes being pursued will attract millions more visitors to Southport and change the economy. There is a belief how people get to the town now has to improve.
Mr Fletcher explained: “In the Budget there were 44 towns which were awarded funding through the Town Deal. Southport received the highest amount of £37.5m, along with Stevenage. We need this funding.
Our town fits many of the criteria of what the Town Deal was set up to achieve. We are a coastal resort which is struggling with poor connectivity. Our terrible train links to Manchester and our lack of direct rail links to Preston and Ormskirk are examples of that.
“The current initiative to reopen the Burscough Curves and restore direct rail links between Southport, Preston and Ormskirk would make a huge difference to our town. Linking Southport to Ormskirk and Edge Hill University by rail would create a huge opportunity for Southport.
“The university there is amazing. It has really developed and grown in recent years. It used to be a small teacher training college when I was at school.”