Could Preston provide a new economic model for Britain’s cities?

Preston bus station. Image: Getty.

Could a blueprint for a self-sufficient local economy worked out by a Lancashire council struggling with poverty and austerity signpost the future for municipalities across England and Wales?

Preston City Council’s work towards developing an economic ecosystem rooted in co-operative principles informed elements of the programme on which Labour fought June’s general election. It’s also at the heart of a major new report, seeking to establish a philosophy to guide the party’s economic policy at local and national level.

The foundations of the Preston Model were laid in 2013, as the Labour-run council cast around for ideas to rebuild the economy of a city ranked in the bottom 20 per cent of the deprivation index, and facing the near-halving of its central government grant from £30m to £18m.

The council looked across the Atlantic to find a possible way forward. It found it in the example of Cleveland, a rust-belt city that has pioneered initiatives to consolidate and widen the circulation of wealth within its economic orbit.

Cleveland’s ’community wealth building’ project emphasises the role large institutions rooted in a municipality such as hospitals, airports, colleges, housing associations – and local authorities themselves – can play as ‘anchors’ around which regional economic ecosystems can stabilise and grow.

By allocating more of their spend budgets to local suppliers and producers, recruiting from the workforce on their doorsteps and incubating local businesses and community organisations, the anchors can keep wealth flowing in municipal economies.

The Cleveland philosophy overlaps with the Foundational Economy concept developed by Manchester University’s Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), which underlines the often overlooked importance of the ‘everyday’ economy. This is the backbone of the regional infrastructures that employ a third of the workforce in England and Wales, and encompasses sectors such as care, health, education, retail, hospitality and food processing.

The council worked with the Democracy Collaborative, a US consultancy closely associated with Cleveland’s reconstruction, and British think-tank the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) to identify anchors capable of bootstrapping Preston’s economy.

It found that, of the £1.2bn spent annually by major city institutions – including the city and county councils, the university, the constabulary, the hospital and the housing association – only a fraction went to Preston businesses and organisations.

The council worked with its partners to encourage the anchors they identified to reconfigure their spending patterns. A £600,000 printing contract tendered by the constabulary was kept in Preston, and the £1.6m council food budget was broken into lots and awarded to farmers in the region. Since 2013 the council has spent an additional £4m locally, up from 14 per ecnt of its budget in 2012 to 28% in 2016.

As the project has gathered momentum, Preston has established a social value framework to inform all aspects of the local procurement cycle, as well as a city wide credit union as part of a financial inclusion strategy.

Councillor Matthew Brown – Preston’s cabinet Member for  social justice and inclusion policy – says the council is working towards building a tightly integrated ecosystem of co-operative enterprises around the city’s anchor institutions. In this, it is following the example of Cleveland’s Evergreen Co-operatives network and Spain’s Mondragon federation:

“We’re trying to promote public ownership at a local level. So there’s the idea of establishing a community bank. There’s the idea of promoting credit unions and community development funds. There’s the possibility of using the council’s pension fund for investment in the local economy. We’re looking at establishing municipal energy partnerships. And there are possibilities around creating co-ops where there are gaps in the supply chain – we’re working with the university on that now.”

Preston’s move towards self-sufficiency has helped the city achieve the second biggest shift in its multiple deprivation index ranking between 2010 and 2015. It also beat Manchester and Liverpool to win recognition in the 2016 Good Growth for Cities index as the best city in north-west England in which to live and work, according to criteria including jobs, income, work-life balance, transport, the environment and the house-price-to-earnings ratio. Brown said:

“You can see it all comes together to form quite a powerful post-capitalist framework. This is very challenging to the economics we’ve had over the last 40 years, and it’s that cultural issue which is probably the biggest thing we need to break down.”

The council’s efforts to feel its way towards a robust co-operative economic framework have been the subject of studies by the CLES and the Co-operative Party, and soon gained the attention of the Labour leadership after Jeremy Corbyn was elected on a mandate to explore ideas for new economic models.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell chose Preston to deliver a major speech on the cooperative economy in early 2016, in which he declared an aspiration to extend principles of “decentralised ownership and democratised wealth” across regional economies and the wider national economy.


“I know John is very keen on how we can work together in future,” said Brown. “There are plans to roll out this kind of model nationwide, to get as many local authorities and senior councillors involved in it as possible.”

Elements of the Preston Model could be discerned in the party’s 2017 manifesto commitments to introduce new procurement requirements for national and local government suppliers, and to double the size of the co-operative sector by making funding available through national and regional investment banks and granting employees the ‘right of buyer of first refusal’ if the company they work for comes up for sale.

What’s more, Preston’s example is central to a new Labour report – Alternative Models of Ownership, to which Brown contributed – that explores possibilities for extending co-operative forms of economic organisation across the British economy, at the levels of the individual firm, municipalities and state owned enterprises.

The report foregrounds Preston as primary case study for “the development of ownership models which circulate wealth rather than extract it”. It proposes that anchor institutions might be identified across all English and Welsh cities, and where necessary created, through the relocation of national institutions – such as OFSTED or the lottery – outside the capital.

The report follows Preston’s example in proposing an employment charter obliging employers to consider local workforces when recruiting, and a procurement law requiring public bodies to support local suppliers. It also suggests that Preston’s exploration of the potential of community energy schemes and co-operatives might be rolled out nationally by giving councils a share of receipts from environmental taxes such as the Climate Change Levy.

And there are proposals for community wealth building zones that extend the enterprise zone principle to create spaces for the flourishing of place based co-ops, community and voluntary sector groups.

“The whole idea is to put more democracy into the local economy and also to create wealth and make sure it’s captured by the local community. I think that’s what’s caught the imagination,” says Brown. “I just feel that we’re at the beginning of creating a movement that, if we can get it right, could be quite transformative.”

In today’s febrile political climate, with another election possible as Theresa May’s government seeks to negotiate Brexit with the most fragile of Parliamentary advantages – and with Labour ahead in the polls – Brown’s thesis may be tested sooner rather than later.

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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