Think Local

by Josh Mcloughlin

Matthew Brown and Rhian E. Jones, Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too
Repeater Books 300pp ISBN 9781913462192 £10.99

I grew up 12 miles from Preston, but never visited. No-one I knew did. For a teenager in the 2000s, Liverpool (15 miles away) and Manchester (30 miles away) promised culture, nightlife and seductive metropolitan possibility in abundance (not to mention far better transport links). Preston, meanwhile, seemed an irrelevance. The town was awarded city status only in 2002, ostensibly for winning the ‘Golden City’ contest — but in reality probably because Lancashire had been without an urban centre since the Local Government Act 1972 carved up the region to create Merseyside and Greater Manchester, stripping the historic county of any urban focus (notwithstanding Blackpool’s unique seaside charms). In the last decade, however, Preston has begun to step out of the shadow of its larger neighbours. Since 2012, the city has won admirers around the world thanks to its ‘community wealth-building’ initiatives, spearheaded by its Labour-led Council. The leader of the council, Matthew Brown, has teamed up with historian and New Socialist founding editor Rhian E. Jones to tell the story of the ‘Preston Model’.

Like much of the north, Preston is still battling the chronic after-effects of Thatcherism and deindustrialisation. As in most areas controlled by Labour councils, it suffered deep cuts to local government budgets after the 2007–8 Banking Crisis, leading to a contraction of services and provision across the board, from transport to social care. The big idea behind the ‘Preston Model’ is that, instead of waiting for Westminster to sort things out, locals decided to take action to reverse decline and regenerate their area. ‘At the heart of community wealth-building’, Brown and Jones explain, ‘is the belief that ordinary individuals and groups are capable of taking ownership, direction and control of their own resources in order to improve their own lives.’

The book begins with the familiar recent history of ‘the mess we’re in’ and the immediate economic context of towns like Preston, where the injustice of austerity forced the ‘rolling back of the welfare state, deindustrialisation, attacks on wages and working conditions, and weakening of local civic infrastructure’, making the UK’s most vulnerable communities pay for the recklessness of the banks. In the botched attempt to regenerate struggling areas, ‘both national governments and local authorities concentrated on creating jobs without attention to the quality, conditions or long-term security of this work, and handed public money to corporations who mishandled their plans for regeneration or let them collapse’. Under the coalition government, local authority spending on outsourced services rose to £120 billion. Likewise, when it comes to housing, ‘council agendas’ remain ‘driven by corporate property developers and with a focus on gentrifying an area rather than meeting its existing needs’. All this adds up less to a capital leak than a flood of wealth draining out of areas that can scarcely afford it — and into the coffers of multinationals based in London or abroad.

At its heart, the Preston Model attempts to reverse this with a policy of ‘Progressive Procurement’, through which anchor institutions — universities, hospitals, councils, and other large employers — are encouraged to ‘insource’ labour and services to local businesses rather than outsource them to companies with no useful presence — let alone a stake — in the community. This keeps money flowing within the city, with the ultimate aim of ‘direct community control and direction of local services’. As Brown and Jones note, progressive procurement is a form of ‘taking back control’ for local people that goes beyond the empty promises of populist rhetoric.

Brown and Jones set Preston’s community wealth-building strategy within the long tradition of socialist, anarchist, cooperative and environmental movements, from the 1871 Paris Commune to the 1976 Lucas Plan, a manifesto for worker-ownership produced by redundancy-threatened employees of Lucas Aerospace Corporation. But this is no misty-eyed nostalgia for an idealised socialism — community wealth-building works, as Brown and Jones’s examples amply demonstrate. Mondragón, an industrial town in the Basque region, is home to Mondragón Cooperative Corporation (MCC), a federation of worker cooperatives that has grown from a technical college into Spain’s sixth-largest company, with 100,000 employees globally across more than 250 cooperatives, and where the salary ration between the lowest and highest paid worker is 1:9, compared with 1:129 for the average FTSE 100 company. Thanks to its co-operative structure, Mondragón has been insulated from the worst effects of the 2008 crash, which led to biting austerity and widespread unemployment across the rest of Spain in the 2010s. In the US, the Democracy Collaborative, a ‘think-do’ tank that researches how to regenerate declining areas, has worked with local leaders, community activists and workers in Cleveland, Ohio since 2008, localising the procurement of its anchor institutions, fostering worker cooperatives, and powering the regeneration of the city’s neighbourhoods.

Just as Mondragón inspired Cleveland, so too did the Ohio capital inspire Matthew Brown and other councillors in North West England. The Preston Model looked to ‘embed the principles of community wealth-building in its economic strategy, which was predicated on harnessing the collective power of public institutions and local resources rather than relying on corporate investment’. Procurement is not the only option for community wealth-building, however. Local credit unions can help lift residents out of the endless cycle of crippling interest payments and council investment in public pension funds can reverse some of the effects of budget cuts. The encouragement of worker-owned cooperatives can create better jobs with higher wages, whilst university-led campaigns to retain and nurture talent can prevent ‘brain drain’, making graduates think twice before moving to nearby cities or London for work. And the establishment of community land trusts paves the way for responsible housing development designed to meet the needs of local people, not greedy developers.

The book contains fascinating examples of community wealth-building initiatives from around the world, discusses the Preston Model at length, and provides an extensive reading list for those looking to establish community wealth-building initiatives in their area. But what it lacks is a personal touch, some narrative fire in the belly, the human-interest story. Perspectives of ‘ordinary individuals’ — those meant to be at the heart of local planning — are conspicuous by their absence. Aside from one brief case study examining the Preston Digital Foundation (a local, worker-owned creative agency) the effects of the Preston Model on the lived experience of those in the community goes unelaborated. We learn that ‘By 2020, Preston had achieved its highest employment rate and lowest levels of economic inactivity for over fifteen years, and in 2018 had been voted the UK’s most improved city in which to live or work’. Between 2013 and 2017, six local anchor institutions increased the money they spent in the city from £38m to £111m, and in the wider Lancashire area from £292m to £486m. Impressive figures, but we are left wondering what local people make of it all.

Certainly, the benefits to the local economy are unquestionable. A local construction firm was hired to refurbish Preston’s iconic bus station where, in the past, a larger multinational might have won the tender; and a council contract for school meals, too large for one local company, was instead broken into lots and awarded to farmers in the region. And there are certainly big plans: in 2021, a £40m cinema and leisure development is due for construction, with assets owned by the city of Preston and profits being redirected into council service; whilst the council has opened talks with local authorities in Merseyside regarding the ‘North West Mutual’, a community bank to which Preston City Council has already pledged £1m. But the wider effect of the Preston Model on the hearts and minds of the city’s inhabitants is only vaguely gestured at.

Brown, the leader of Preston City Council, admits that ‘practical implementation is currently limited in terms of democratic engagement and “buy-in”’, and initiatives such as Preston’s can be awkwardly top-down: ‘it was evident in this book’s research that the involvement of individuals beyond councils and think thanks is providing difficult’. That is ominous for those of a left persuasion, who have found it hard to shake the image and the idea that contemporary socialism is necessarily a top-down imposition, shorn of its egalitarian, working-class roots. More than that, as Brown and Jones point out, the lack of local buy-in and the dependency of community wealth-building initiatives on local councils leaves them exposed to the political weather and vulnerable to dismantling at every local election. The authors insist that ‘the ideas of community wealth-building can cut across political partisanship’, but it is hard to imagine a Conservative-led council funding a community bank or cultivating worker co-operatives..

Brown and Jones point out ‘the difficulty of measuring well-being and social improvement’. They are right: converting economic metrics into meaningful social insight wellbeing is far from straightforward, and it may be decades before the full impact of these initiatives is properly understood. But there are ways to gauge the effects of community wealth-building projects as they unfold – the simplest of all is to consult local people. I asked a friend from Preston how the Preston Model had affected them. ‘In essence, the model has helped the town immensely’, he said. ‘If you walk through Preston town centre and compare it to any of the nearby towns of similar size – Bolton, Burnley, Blackburn – the difference is stark’:

The bottom line is that, post-Thatcher, it will take a huge injection of government infrastructure and industrial investment to get Lancashire going again. In the meantime, the Preston Model is helping produce something of an alternative path. It certainly has come from a top-down approach, but it’s better than nothing - and nothing is all we’ve had for decades. It’s a start but, of course, there’s so much work still to do.

The aims of Paint Your Town Red — perhaps the aims of the Preston Model itself — may be better served by complementing economic and statistical analyses with social insight gathered from the feedback and input of informed people in the local community.

It may seem pedantic, but I have a quibble about referencing. If you are going to provide a non-fiction book with a veneer of scholarly rigour by including endnotes (inferior in every way to footnotes, I should add) they should at least be usable. URLs cited with no author, title, publisher, or date are effectively unreadable, look messy, and are pointless in a printed book.

Overall, however, Paint Your Town Red is a vital work. It recounts the fascinating history of community wealth-building, tells the story of the Preston Model in rich detail, and provides a toolkit of ideas, resources and further reading for those keen to get involved in changing their local area for the better. Perhaps most importantly of all, Brown and Jones show us that, despite a decade and more of Tory austerity, broken promises about the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, and a national economy distended by the excesses of London and the South East, there are viable economic alternatives to untrammelled corporate capitalism.