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Behind-closed-doors row over heavily-delayed Talbot Gateway scheme

Documents obtained by The Blackpool Lead show Blackpool Council is in an ongoing dispute with a contractor on the project.

May 09 2024, 11.30am
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Town hall officials have been locked in a behind-closed-doors row with builders working on the multimillion-pound Talbot Gateway scheme, which includes the heavily delayed tramway extension and four-star Holiday Inn hotel. 

Recent testing on the tram track, which saw Bombardier trams travel between the new interchange next to the Blackpool North railway station and the Promenade, appears to have gone well, with an official opening date of 12 June now announced.

But concerns have been raised about how long the work on the extension and interchange, hotel and underpass has taken, with the scheme hit by several setbacks.

In recent months, senior councillors have met privately – with the press and public banned from proceedings – to discuss "an ongoing dispute with the contractor", a document obtained by The Blackpool Lead has revealed.

A council spokesperson refused to name the firm involved and, asked if the authority has pursued legal action, said: "We simply cannot discuss the contract".

The interchange and extension, which was due to be finished in July 2019, according to a previous town hall response to a freedom of information request, have cost £23.4m, the "same as the original estimate", the council said. 

The hotel and associated works were given a price tag of £34.6m, but this time the authority refused to say if that figure has changed since original estimates.

There are several known factors behind the half-decade delay on the tramway extension, which has cost the council – and therefore the taxpayer – years in lost fare revenue at the least.

Some work had to be redone because it was not carried out properly, including on the Talbot Square tram stop, while the quality of paving in some places was called into question. There was a list of more than 100 defects in total, including boot prints in asphalt, standing water and a pothole. 

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A Resilience Pathway paving stone, installed as part of an £11m mental health project, was damaged. Rumours that the tracks were built either too close together or too far apart were dismissed by the council as "simply not true".

Work on the interchange, 144-room Holiday Inn, Marco Pierre White's New York Italian diner and retail units, all built on the old Wilko site in Talbot Road, was also held up because of delays to the extension of the Houndshill Shopping Centre, where the retailer was due to move (but did not).

That meant work to demolish the Wilko building, which included a multi-storey car park, did not start until September 2020.

But even estimated finishing dates after then were wrong – with the council saying last year that the hotel and tram extension would be open by the summer.

"Technical problems with some of the cladding on the building" were then discovered, it was reported in Blackpool Gazette last June.

An updated deadline of "just before Christmas" was also missed.

The council spokesperson blamed a "combination of factors" for the delays but said "finalising the Wilko demolition and completing the hotel and underpass are the primary reasons".

The pandemic also impacted work for "at least/over 12 months", they added.

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The site of the Holiday Inn. Credit: The Blackpool Lead

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Tony Williams, who was the Conservative opposition leader at the town hall in 2018, when his claims that the tramway would be hit by delays were rubbished by the council, described the five-year hold up as a "disgrace".

And Blackpool North and Cleveleys MP Paul Maynard, a former parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department of Transport, said: "The delays to the project are concerning and lessons need to be learned, not least given the need to ensure other major projects across Blackpool are delivered on time and on budget."

The tramway extension was approved in 2016 and proved a contentious topic. Supporters said it would improve connectivity with rail services, encourage the use of public transport and boost economic growth, but detractors said it would lead to traffic problems and was a waste of money.

Former Stealers Wheel and Jethro Tull musician Williams, who is no longer a councillor, fears the extension is an "accident waiting to happen", with cars, cyclists and landaus sharing part of Talbot Road with trams. He raised the question of whether Blackpool Transport, which was hit by a driver shortage during the pandemic, has enough resources to service the extended route.

The council's arms-length company did not respond to requests for a comment.

A council spokesperson said the "original intention was to operate a 20-minute service to/from the Pleasure Beach and Bispham, which would provide a tram every 10 minutes on the extension".

Asked how many will run on it every hour now, they said that Blackpool Transport will confirm new timetables in the coming weeks.

Coun Paul Galley, leader of the Conservative opposition at the council, said he was the only Tory councillor to vote for the scheme.

If he could have his time again, he said he would still back it, though he concedes the narrative at the time was "poor" and should not have been around the tramway being extended just 600 metres, but around it being connected to the likes of Manchester and Liverpool through the wider rail network.

"Nobody likes them being built because they are disruptive and expensive and often they are late," said Galley, the former Blackpool Transport board chairman, citing London's Crossrail and the HS2 scheme.

"However, once they are open the reverse happens – they are a success in that people like them and use them."

Galley said Lord Street, which faced the grey, brutalist architecture of the Wilko building for decades, has also been transformed by the extension and given its own tram stop.

But he would have liked a planned car park next to the interchange – which stands opposite the existing multi-storey Talbot Road car park – to have been turned into green space instead.

"We are very quick to build parks for cars but not for people. I just don't understand," he said.
 

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North Station Tram Stop. Credit: The Blackpool Lead

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And while Galley said he respects the impact building work has had on businesses in Talbot Road, which the council said are not eligible for compensation over the delayed extension, he believes the street will be regenerated in the longer term, adding: "It will lift the area so that will play itself out."

Maynard also welcomed the tramway extension and said he sees it as "the start of a longer programme of investment in our local light rail network". 

He said he will "continue to fight for an extension between Poulton and Fleetwood as part of a tram-train project connecting communities in the north of the Fylde peninsula with Lancashire's rail hub in Preston".

News of the latest testing, which resumed on 23 April after two years and was done because of the length of time the track remained dormant, was broadly welcomed on social media, though there was the predictably sarcastic response too.

“(That’s) one way of stopping the track rusting, I suppose," one Facebook user said on the council's official page.

Another highlighted the authority's dated artist's impression of a tram cruising down the road, writing: "That picture's obviously not right; there's not been a Shoemarket for two years and Imperial is now Garlands."

A small crowd gathered as testing got underway and builders continued to work on the underpass linking the tram interchange to the railway station.

Under a blue spring sky, workers in hard hats and high-visibility vests used handheld traffic control devices to change the lights as the purple Flexity 2 trams set off on short test journeys, screeching around the bend into Talbot Road and moving towards North Pier, around a loop, and back again.

No passengers were on board and the orange destination indicators read "not in service".

A drone filmed overhead as press photographers captured the moment for posterity and passers-by recorded and live-streamed on their mobile phones.

The hotel, which opened on 1 May, was still behind barriers, while the ground beside the tracks remained a building site.

When the first passenger tram runs on the extension in early June (the first on 12 June will carry competition winners and passengers will be charged from 16 June), they will be the first to travel along Talbot Road by tram since 1963.

So while it is sometimes said the wheels of progress turn slowly, they do in this case appear to finally be reaching their destination, even if it will have taken an extra 1,797 days.

Alan Cavill, the council's director of communications and regeneration, said in a press release: "I'm absolutely delighted that the new tramway extension will be running in time for the summer".

He added: "The extension... is an important piece in the council's commitment to create a modern and integrated transport network across Blackpool which is important for both residents and visitors.

"The tramway extension will enable everyone to travel more easily across town, but also across the north west and further afield in a quicker, more efficient way."

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