Julia Mazza talks to Council leader Matt Brown about the city’s ground-breaking project
It’s the Preston Model’s 10th birthday: a radical plan for regeneration in the face of vicious central government cuts.
It started in 2012 at a co-operatives conference when Cllr Matt Brown met Ted Howard of the US Democracy Collaborative (DC). Howard had created co-operatives to supply semi-public bodies in Cleveland, Ohio. Brown was looking for alternative policies for Preston after the collapse of its £700 million Tithebarn project. The retail development had collapsed after John Lewis withdrew in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash. By 2011 Preston had hit rock bottom.
Brown found his solution in the DC’s Community Wealth Building, a giant toolkit for keeping money in the local economy.
Preston was able to use the 2013 Public Service (Social Value) Act that permits public authorities to consider the social, environmental and economic impact of their outside contracts. It meant Preston could prioritise contracting more to local companies.
Then there’s insourcing, creating worker co-operatives and paying the Real Living Wage.
The DC’s special ingredient is the council’s partnership with so-called Anchor Institutions. When these public and private bodies are open to council policies for local commissioning and higher wages, the returns on the local authority’s efforts are amplified.
In the UK, Community Wealth Building became known as the Preston Model after the city that got the ball rolling.
Preston pays the Real Living Wage, currently £9.90 an hour. The council has four main Anchor partners in education, housing, police and health. The NHS has its own new Anchor network. Wherever it can, the city prioritises insourcing and spends local.
Their local government pension fund has earmarked £100 million including student flats, a hotel and office space. That’s just a few examples: they are using the DC toolkit at scale.
But as Community Wealth Building has spread from the US to New Zealand and in the UK across Labour, SNP, Sinn Fein, and Plaid Cymru, some say it’s lost its head of steam.
After a decade of the policy, is the Preston Model yesterday’s big idea? I went to the source and spoke directly with Preston Man himself, the Council Leader since 2018, Matt Brown.
I ask about his plans for the next few years and he runs down his to-do list.
“The capacity with a council the size of ours is really diminished to do everything we’d like as soon as we like,” he tells me. “A lot of it has been to do with public sector regeneration. So we’re regenerating our city centre primarily in local public ownership. The multi-million pound Harris Museum is in the process of being refurbished.” Using a local firm, he adds.
“The cinema, again with the asset in local public ownership – that’s going to begin construction in October.” Yes, a council cinema.
“And then it’s the other regeneration of the city centre that’s going to go ahead. That will include the Youth Zone that will be an independent charity.
“The Community Bank we’re working on that at the moment: we hope to get that up and running within 18 months if we can and that’s going to be across the North West Region.
“We’re looking at how to restart council housing again in Preston.
“And also the work with employee ownership that’s going to continue because we’ve got five worker co-ops registered and we want to have a lot more.
“A big part of it is looking at how we recover from Covid. We are looking at how we can do really practical things like working with our NHS to recruit people in the highest areas of deprivation. And we need to tackle the structural inequalities you get around race and disability and other things.
“Then we’ve got ideas around how to generate energy in local public ownership. We’re looking to collaborate with some of our Anchors – to generate energy not only for their own estates but potentially local businesses and residents.
“We’re looking at using land and assets for Community Wealth Building measures. We also have a plan for Preston being a Real Living Wage City.”
But how much does Community Wealth Building cost? After all, Preston’s central government grant has dwindled from £20 million in 2011 to just over £5.5 million for this year.
“We’re reliant on what we raise in council tax and also business rates and other things,” says Matt.
How much is spent on the Community Wealth Building budget?
“That’s not an easy question,” he says. “We’re spending £70 million regenerating our city centre primarily in public ownership. We are going to invest £1 million in the Community Bank but a lot of this is done through capital which is a bit different. We can expect a return and we also get some grant funding for those things as well. Potentially it could be cost-neutral.”
There are the staffing costs. At present, three or four council officers are dedicated to Community Wealth Building, and one Cabinet Member, says Matt.
“It doesn’t have a huge amount a staff. A lot of it is around influencing and working with partners to achieve what we need to.”
I run through the Opposition’s criticism of specific projects at the Council’s budget meeting. The losses were raised of the Avenham Park Pavilion Cafe, insourced after the private operator went out of business. If it were transferred back to the private sector, Matt argues, there’s no certainty the same thing wouldn’t happen again. Then there are the delays to the Shankly Hotel development – opening in the summer – and the Guild Hall project, facing legal issues.
Has Covid caused any delays?
“We’re going to have a co-operative housing project in our city centre but that’s potentially going to be put back a bit. Also our taxi drivers incubated a workers co-op. It’s not become a priority really, it’s just basically keeping their livelihoods going during that period.
“It’s been frustrating in a sense. Go back to early 2020 and a lot of this was really about to take off, we thought, but obviously the pandemic just changed everything in terms of what we could do and what we could deliver.”
And the empty department stores? Is that outside the Council’s remit? He disagrees.
“This is why we’re doing what we’re doing, because of the likes of Philip Green and Debenhams and some of the dynamics we’ve seen. The behaviour of corporate capitalism has led to commercial department stores which are empty for years.” He’s hoping to encourage NHS agencies to make use of them.
He wants to transform the High Street. “We’re going to have more emphasis on cultural activity. So in the city centre we’re going to have a mobile events tent, public murals, dance, performance art, creativity. We’re trying to reimagine the High Street away from retail, especially the kind of retail which has vulture capitalists just buying these companies and putting both the workers and communities at risk – which has happened recently.”
I ask about recent Facebook comments that the Preston Model is all PR fluff with nothing of real local benefit. Can Matt point to specific gains?
“Without a doubt,” he replies and he rattles off his list of achievements.
“Firstly we were the first accredited Real Living Wage employer in the North of England back in 2012. What we did first is we worked with Anchors in Preston to become Real Living Wage employers. There are about 1,000 people who have benefited over those years in Preston. The County Council which is headquartered in Preston – that became a Real Living Wage employer. About 4,000 people got a pay rise. The university supported it, the largest housing association, the police have as well. Now we’re the best authority for people who receive £9.90 an hour by workplace, out of 14 Lancashire councils.
“We have affordable housing policies, so through our planning process we say to all developers: you must provide at least 30 per cent affordable housing on developments of over 15 units.
“In addition to that we work with public sector partners to enable the development of affordable housing on public sector land. Out of 14 Lancashire councils we’re the best for levels of affordable housing.
“The employment rate was the best since research began, before the pandemic came. An extra £75 million was spent on local businesses in 2017 and that work continued until the pandemic.
“Child poverty has stabilised and declined in recent years and compared with similar areas of deprivation our rates have generally performed better over a five-year period. Put together, we feel Community Wealth Building has contributed to that.”
Matt’s language is peppered with words like “mindset” and “embed”. Because really it’s not just a new policy, but a state of mind or a cultural sea-change. Once you learn the possibilities, you get it. It’s finding doable alternatives to waiting for the white knight of retail revival that’s never going to come.
I also wonder if a lot of these ideas haven’t been at the back of many minds for years, occasionally getting an outing at Labour branch meetings or in emails to councillors, only to hit that brick wall of no-can-do council-speak. Perhaps the Preston Model is the key to unlocking them.
As our conversation ends, Matt has two more examples he’s keen to share.
A long-established local Traveller community faced eviction when the site’s landlords, the County Council, decided to sell it at auction. The city adopted the site and helped the residents set up a housing co-operative. “That’s Community Wealth Building in action as well,” he says.
Then there’s Emmanuel Church being developed for mostly affordable housing. They have indicated they will form a Community Land Trust. The initiative is driven by a former employee of an Anchor institution.
“Because of the Preston Model, we get these things that just spring out of nowhere.”
Running out of steam? Hardly.
Julia Mazza is a writer for North East Bylines.
Paint your town red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too, by Matthew Brown and Rhian E. Jones is published by Repeater Books.
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