We speak to Councillor Matthew Brown, leader of Preston City Council, about the city’s response to the pandemic, his view of the planning white paper, and how the “Preston Model” might show how a new form of active localism can foster greater resilience in the years ahead. 

Councillor Matthew Brown has no time to mess about. When we spoke with him, after weeks of negotiations, the government had just imposed tier 3 restrictions on the Lancashire region.

His official response was that he was “disappointed” that government had not accepted a number of significant public health asks or agreed levels of support needed to protect jobs and livelihoods in Preston. 

But Preston is a fiercely independent community, and over the past decade, its city council have pioneered a new model for localism that might stand it in good stead as it grapples with the Covid fallout in the years ahead. 

“These are quite radical ideas in terms of local government,” Matthew Brown explains. “We’re not a large council so our work has to be collaborative. All I know is we’re in a very difficult situation. Success depends on whether people have the courage to take these ideas forward.”

The Preston Model

What Preston has been doing, to some effect, is to use its local economic assets to revitalise its local economy, with local infrastructure in place that together forms a community wealth-building agenda.

In a local economy where the public sector accounts for 40% of the workforce, maintaining jobs and wages is crucial in an area’s resilience to the economic effect of the pandemic. Which is why an early commitment to being a real living wage employer, which then encouraged another 60 local employers to do the same, is looking like a prescient move. Other initiatives have included a credit union and supporting a community development financial institution, Preston has also with its public sector partners repatriated £75m of spending to locally based companies. There are new worker cooperatives including for taxi drivers and they have begun to incubate a regional community bank to loan £400 million.

A lead in the built environment

But Preston City Council have taken a lead in the built environment, too, by working with the pension fund they are part of to invest in the local area in the construction of student halls, the refurbishment of a local hotel, and the council even plans to build a local cinema. And local planning policies stipulate that all developments look at employing local people and using local suppliers.

“We’ve used our own land for not-for-profit housing associations to build new affordable homes,” Matthew explains. “But the requirements for affordable housing are becoming more difficult because of viability assessments. Outside the city centre it’s holding up, but inside the city centre it’s becoming quite problematic.”

And Matthew’s response to the planning white paper is unambiguous.

“It’s disgusting,” he says. “It’s taking away local democracy. Developers rather than locally elected councillors will be making decisions. This has been happening over some time with presumption in favour of sustainable development and it’s getting worse.”

A local response

Matthew is clear about the need for a local-first approach to the problems we face. “We’ve got a really good set of ideas in Preston, and we have very strong grass roots and community organisations,” he explains. “We have to have people who believe in these ideas and are willing to fight for them.”

And the local is never far away from the national agenda.

“The problem is you have a government that’s been imposing austerity and the most centralised government in western Europe. Government does everything it can to prevent local councils acting in a way to bring about change in the way it’s needed.”

There’s little doubting Matthew’s commitment to improving Preston. And as the voices for change from the North of England become louder, perhaps now is the time for a localist agenda can reach a national audience. 

“In some places, radical change isn’t in the core of a place, whereas it is here in Preston. You have to have people who believe in these ideas and are willing to fight for them.”