Preston used ‘Corbynomics’ to change its fortune. Now other cities are doing the same

Blue skies over Preston bus station. Image: Ilike/Flickr/creative commons.

I am sure they are an estimable bunch, but Preston Council are not the locomotive of the UK economy. We Conservatives know that it is only a strong private sector economy that can pay for superb public services.

When Boris Johnson scoffed at the idea of Preston being an example of economic success, at a fringe meeting during the most recent Conservative Party conference, he couldn’t have guessed that barely a month later PwC and Demos would independently assess Preston as being the most improved city in the UK in 2018.

Among other improvements, according to their report, “Preston has experienced a large reduction in its unemployment rate, measured at 3.1 per cent in 2017 compared to 6.5 per cent in 2014.”

In Preston, several factors fell onto place at once, leading to positive change that was part planned, part felicitous. Inspired by the Cleveland model, the council visited local “anchor institutions” – institutions that are rooted in Preston, such as the housing association, the university and so on – and persuaded them to spend more money locally. The results were spectacular: local procurement increased by £74m in under five years.

Then, inspired by Mondragon – an international business organisation established by a group of cooperatives, which began soon after the Spanish Civil War – the council set up a framework organisation called the Preston Cooperative Development Network (PCDN), of which I am the Chair. The PCDN encourages business people to create worker-owned co-operatives, and helps them to network. The Preston Model is work in progress, yet the council has achieved a lot in relatively little time. Here are four of the factors which led to its success.

1. Adversity

The collapse of major retail investment into Preston soon after the financial crash of 2008 left the city with nothing: no money, no faith in a failing system and no alternative regeneration scheme. New ideas sometimes emerge out of necessity, and this was one of them.

2. Leadership

At the same time, Preston City Council had the good fortune to enjoy the leadership of an energetic councillor, Matthew Brown. Brown has been a councillor since 2002. He then became Cabinet Member for Social Justice, Inclusion, and Policy, and now is leader of the council.

Frustrated by the dire economic and social prospects for Preston, Brown set about scouring the world for alternative solutions for Preston, while simultaneously improving the local area. For example, it’s because of Brown that Preston City Council was one of the first councils in the UK to introduce the living wage.

3. Corbyn’s Labour party

Councillor Brown’s ideas might never have seen the light of day without the interest and ultimately the backing of Corbyn’s Labour party. In particular, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell took a proactive interest, and was instrumental in setting up a Labour Party Community Wealth Building Unit, inspired by the Preston Model.

This has helped to develop ideas – such as generating and retaining local wealth through local procurement and employee ownership schemes – which have the potential to become Labour Party policy.

4. Research, advice and consultation

The council was forward thinking and creative in its approach, and so agreed to fund the Centre for Local Economic Strategy (CLES) and the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) to advise councillors and council officers on ways of executing their ideas. CLES and UCLan provided both practical advice and reports to support the council’s Community Wealth Building project.

Can it work elsewhere?

According to Councillor Matthew Brown, aspects of the Preston Model are already being applied elsewhere in the UK, partly as a result of media attention and partly as a Labour Party strategy for about 50 local authorities currently governed by Labour. After Preston, perhaps the most advanced in this kind of strategy is Birmingham.

At least eight London councils are actively pursuing some of the ideas arising from the Preston model, and there has been interest from the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Government.


There is often a certain scepticism about economic and social change, and the case of the Preston Model is no exception. There is talk of protectionism, a fear that perhaps the economy will become less efficient and concerns that localism will collapse, when faced with a need to expand beyond the borders of Preston.

Sometimes, people ask me what it is about Preston itself that accounts for its success (and possibly, therefore, for the difficulty of exporting the model elsewhere). This is the same question that is asked of the Mondragon co-operatives in the Basque Country, since the Mondragon experience has proven difficult to export to other countries.

But change is in the air, as popular economists such as Yanis Varoufakis and Thomas Piketty have forewarned. Journalists such as Paul Mason talk of a “post-capitalist” future. Meanwhile, academics Pickett and Wilkinson critique the social value of growth and Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economics” suggests that there’s a safe and just space for humanity, where no one falls short of life’s essentials and the ecology of the planet is not compromised by rampant consumerism.

The desire for change is part of the energy of the Preston Model. It’s not just about local money. It’s about participating in democracy as cooperative structures demand, it’s about citizenship and pride of place. Anchor institutions opt to spend more locally, in part because procurement officers and the institutions they represent feel all these things. And these things don’t belong to Preston alone.

The Conversation

Julian Manley, Research Fellow, University of Central Lancashire.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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