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.

 
 
 
 

Ducks and the City: how birds thrive in urban spaces

A mandarin duck, possibly a distant relative of New York’s Hot Duck. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

New York may be well known one of the most diverse, cosmopolitan places on Earth, but the arrival of one East Asian migrant in October 2018 still managed to surprise and delight the city. One lonely male mandarin duck – a gorgeous rust-red duck streaked with white and blue, native to Japan, Korea and East China – somehow found its way to Central Park and settled down on one of the ponds among the mallards and wood ducks to become the media sensation “Hot Duck”. Although not strictly wild in the birdspotting sense as it likely escaped from someone’s collection, the duck lives as free as, well, a bird among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

A few months later, the mandarin’s native territory was graced by a rare visitor of its own when a European robin ended up in the heart of Beijing. Having shown up just when Britain was falling deeper into political crisis, Chinese birdspotters nicknamed it “Brexit refugee” and raced in from across the country to see what Brits would probably consider an incredibly ordinary bird.

A rash of unusual birds have hit the headlines after landing in cities lately – other recent examples include Melbourne’s “Goth Duck” (a tufted duck, a mainly northern European species never before seen in Australia) and the eagle owl that divebombed bald men in Exeter – but when they do, it’s always their rarity that makes them newsworthy, along with the incongruity of seeing a beautiful wild animal among concrete and litter. Normally cities aren’t home to anything more interesting than a dirty pigeon or a bloodthirsty seagull.

Right?

Moving in

Popular myth says London’s first ring-necked parakeets were released in Carnaby Street by Jimi Hendrix. It’s probably not true, but it’s one hell of a story. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor was any other city. Thousands of years ago, wild birds discovered new opportunities on the edges of the first villages. Today the house sparrow is ubiquitous in just about every urban area in the world, but before the first house was built it lived in the dry grasslands of the Middle East, picking seeds out of the sandy soil. Then humans came along and started farming wheat; and whenever a grain fell from a mill or blew from a market stand, a sparrow was there to pick it up. As the technology of farming spread around the world, sparrows came along, too.

Other birds didn’t come by choice but were dragged in by humans. Thousands of rock doves, plump grey-striped birds that nest on cliffs, were caged up and brought into the new cities for their eggs, meat and uncanny ability to find their way home. Naturally, a few of these escaped, but quickly discovered that the walls of buildings were just as good for nesting as natural cliffs. The familiar pigeon was born.

More recently, many species of ducks and geese found a home in cities for the same reason, as have pets-gone-wild like the Indian ring-necked parakeets that brighten up London’s parks and the Javan mynas that chatter in Singapore’s streets.

Bohemian waxwings mainly live in the forests of Scandinavia, but in cold winters they will fly across the sea to British parks and gardens to feast on garden berries. No prizes for guessing where this one is. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

As cities have changed, so too have the birds that lived there. Back when most meat was butchered in shops and markets, piles of skin and bone attracted huge flocks of scavengers like ravens and red kites. Now city streets are mostly free of scrap meat thanks to bin lorries, supermarkets and industrial meat processing; both species fled into the countryside, where they found themselves persecuted by farmers and gamekeepers, the red kite almost to the point of extinction. Now both birds are making a slow comeback.

On the other hand, parks and gardens have lured new species out of the woods and into the town with their sweet berry bushes and seed-filled bird feeders. Blue tits – tiny birds that in the forest prefer to pick spiders off oak trees – adapted especially well to garden life: in the days of milk rounds, the birds learned how to peck open bottle caps and sip at the cream inside. The birds’ behaviour has recently changed again because of the rise of supermarkets and the fall of dairy delivery, and it certainly won’t be the last time.

What do city birds think of us?

Herring gulls are as happy in a Latvian bus station as they are on a windswept beach. Happier, maybe. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

If you walk in a forest you might well find yourself absolutely surrounded by bird song but unable to see where it’s coming from. Birds are shy and, unless they grew up on a desert island, they will fly away and hide at the slightest hint of a threat. They almost behave like programmed characters from a video game – they draw an imaginary circle around themselves (known as the “flight zone”) and if anyone enters that circle, they flee.

Urban birds consistently have a much smaller flight zone and will tend to let humans get much closer to them; and the longer a species has been urbanised, the more this radius shrinks. In the most extreme instance, urban birds will hop right up to someone who might feed them and even land on their hand. (In one of the best birding moments of my life, a parakeet in Hyde Park snatched a peanut from a tourist then landed right on my shoulder to eat it, staying there long enough to pose for a selfie).

If one bird invades another’s territory, things can get messy. Here, two magpies chase off a buzzard as its partner watches. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Then again, not all birds are that friendly. Many are very territorial, especially in the nesting season. Even medium-sized birds like vicious Australian magpies can cause eye injuries to people passing their nests; really big birds like swans can seriously injure people who get too close. Others, like the larger species of gulls, are just greedy and will attack people to steal their food.

Most birds aren’t quite that bold, but living close to humans has still affected their behaviour. Many species of birds are very intelligent – European magpies might be the cleverest non-mammal on the planet – and they’ve worked out how many of the systems of the city work. Pigeons can hop on-board trains for a lazier way to travel between feeding spots. Seagulls understand how to open automatic doors in order to raid branches of Greggs. Crows use passing cars to crack tough nuts, and will even wait at traffic lights to swoop in when the cars stop.

What do we make of city birds?

The robin was voted Britain’s favourite bird in a recent poll, which just goes to show what being small, cute and surprisingly aggressive can do for you. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although we share our cities with a whole menagerie of wildlife, most of it is either shy and nocturnal, or prefers the dark, dirty places where humans rarely venture. Birds by contrast are inescapable – on any day on any city street you can expect to at least see a few pigeons flying overhead, or hear something singing from a nearby bush. For some people, this constant awareness has morphed into affection; for others, jealousy at sharing urban spaces with other species.


Even setting aside the risk of attack, birds can come into conflict with humans. Their droppings are not only unpleasant, but they can damage buildings and cause nasty lung diseases. Not every bird has a beautiful song either – a great tit squeaking away outside your bedroom window at 5am is bad enough, but spare a thought for the Australians who have kookaburras scream-laughing on their balconies. If waking you up wasn’t antisocial enough, big birds like herring gulls and Australian white ibises (better known as “bin chickens”) will rip open bin bags and fling the rubbish across your garden. The birds guilty of these indiscretions are generally classed as pests and many cities are fighting back – either by killing the birds or by taking eggs from their nests.

Herons eat fish from ponds and occasionally birds of prey will attack small pets. Urban pigeon keepers, angry after having a prize bird attacked by a sparrowhawk, occasionally try to poison or set cruel traps to kill hawks; but in general cities actually provide a safe haven for birds of prey. Scottish sparrowhawks seem to breed significantly better in cities, likely because there are so many other birds there to hunt.

In fact, many city councils are encouraging birds of prey as a natural way to control the population of pigeons and rats. Peregrine falcons – the fastest birds on the planet – are given protected nesting sites on church spires and skyscrapers and their every move is streamed on webcams. Harris hawks – native to American deserts – have been brought across the Atlantic to scare birds away from the tennis courts at Wimbledon.

Smaller, cuter birds don’t have any such image problems, and millions of Brits put bird seed in their gardens or feed the ducks at their local park. (I should add: if you do, please don’t give them bread, which lacks the vitamins birds need and causes a horrible disease called “angel wing”; seeds, vegetable peel or little bits of fruit are better.) Cities are increasingly recognised as places where you can spot interesting birds – right now, the bird tracking portal eBird lists no fewer than 289 species that have been seen in London – and the last couple of years have seen guides such as David Lindo’s How to be an Urban Birder and even scientific journals such as the Journal of Urban Ecology dedicated to the life of the town.

Save the birds

An American robin has a rest in Boston Common. American robins are in a completely different family to European robins, in case you ever wondered why the robin in Mary Poppins looked so messed up. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although cities offer food and shelter, they also contain many threats. Glass windows are invisible death to birds flying at full speed – the exact number killed isn’t clear, but it might be as many as 30 million a year in the UK alone. Vehicles can also kill, especially in suburban areas where dense gardens meet busy streets.

Although city birds are protected from some of the predators that they would encounter in the countryside, there are still plenty of animals looking for a meaty meal – not least pet cats, which the RSPB estimates kill 55 million birds in the UK every year. 


These threats aren’t necessarily having an effect on bird populations as a whole – most birds lay more eggs than needed, and if one young bird is killed by a cat a sibling can take its place. The bigger risks come from changes to the environment itself. Pesticides, patios and over-neat lawns have reduced the number of insects crawling around, and therefore the amount of food available for birds like thrushes, starlings and sparrows.

In spite of how easy they are to observe, urban birds tend to be understudied compared to their rural cousins. The fact pigeons are so widespread means researchers often overlook them, but their ubiquity means that observing the birds can help scientists to track environmental changes and to compare cities that otherwise have little in common. Citizen science can help here – the bird tracking apps Birdtrack and eBird let anyone submit their bird sightings, and actually need more coverage of urban and suburban areas.

Thankfully, the idea of creating urban bird sanctuaries is now being taken seriously. Parks have a role to play, but many birds actually prefer the wild roughness of building sites and industrial land, where bare soil crawls with bugs and wildflowers grow gloriously high – ironically, brownfield sites can be as important to the ecosystem as pristine green belt. Perhaps the most spectacular example is the London Wetland Centre in Barnes. Just across the Thames from Hammersmith, this Victorian waterworks has been converted into marsh land and attracts huge flocks of water birds, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in London. In fact thanks to the reserve, a few birds such as the reed-dwelling bittern – which almost went extinct in the UK – are now easier to spot in London than in the countryside it.

Flying into the future

This blackbird probably doesn’t understand its rural cousins. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

In his book Darwin in the City, the biologist Menno Schilthuizen suggests that we’ve been looking at blackbirds all wrong. European blackbirds were originally forest-dwellers eating berries and bugs from the ground. For this, they needed long, probing beaks and the ability to migrate in the winter when the soil froze hard. However, a few blackbirds – possibly initially those living in the hills around Rome – made their way into cities and found plentiful supplies of food year round.

Since they no longer needed to pry into the earth or the bark of trees, their beaks started to get shorter. Because food was available year round, their migration instinct was switched off. And because they needed to compete with traffic and the other noises of city life, their songs got louder. The city dwelling birds became incompatible with their forest dwelling ancestors; the changes to their beaks meant that their songs changed too, until they were effectively speaking different languages. There is a compelling case to be made that there isn’t just one species of blackbird, but two: the forest blackbird, Turdus merula, and the city blackbird, Turdus urbanicus.

Where the blackbird has led, other birds are sure to follow. British great tits are evolving bigger beaks that help them dig around in garden bird feeders and many urban birds have started singing the dawn chorus earlier to avoid traffic and aircraft noise and to take advantage of artificial streetlighting. City-dwelling pigeons even seem to be evolving darker feathers, probably because the dark pigment captures the toxic elements pigeons accidentally ingest when they peck at paint.

Nesting in coated metal gutters like this exposes pigeons to dangerous chemicals in the paint, and this pigeon’s dark feathers are likely an evolutionary response to that threat. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Birds are no longer just accidental wanderers into cities, nor are they just greedy opportunists: they are an integral part of urban ecosystems. Not only do cities need their birds – Increasingly, birds need their cities.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets at @stejormur. Many of the birds mentioned in this article tweet in a tree near you.