Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too

'Paint Your Town Red' by Matthew Brown and Rhian E. Jones

LHRU Book Review

Matthew Brown and Rhian E. Jones, Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too
(London: Repeater, 2021)

Reviewed by Professor Rohan McWilliam

There are multiple paths to renewing the Labour Party but all of them involve community and local government. The party can only be revived from the ground up. That is why, amongst the generally poor local elections results in 2021, it is worth noting that Labour retained all its seats in Preston and continues to dominate the city’s affairs. There has been much talk about the ‘Preston model’. Now the leader of Preston City Council, Matthew Brown, has written a guide (with writer Rhian E. Jones) to show how it works. It is clearly intended to read like a self help book as Brown feels he has pulled off something in Preston that can be emulated elsewhere. More profoundly, his approach may prove to be the most enduring legacy of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (Brown was a leading supporter). Clearly there are lessons here that progressives need to think about. What is the Preston model?

The sub-title roguishly co-opts the Brexiteers' slogan about taking back control. Since the 2008 crash (and indeed well before) towns and smaller cities like Preston have been in decline, starved of investment, with young people forced to move elsewhere in search of a future and with capital draining away from the locality, frequently abroad. What is to be done? The answer that Brown came up with is ‘community wealth building’ or what we might call, ‘radical in-sourcing’.

Preston Council broke with the cycle of ongoing privatisation of services that has been a feature of local government since the Thatcher years. Global financial capital created the wrong kind of investment: it produced lower wages for workers and had no commitment to communities. This led to the ‘left behind’ feeling expressed in the Brexit vote (which I write about in my review of Deborah Mattinson’s Beyond the Red Wall on this website).

The alternative is 'progressive procurement'. Preston council decided it would truly go local by, where possible, procuring its services from companies in the city. This kept the wealth in Preston which could then be used to build up community resources such as the town centre. The council also encouraged the creation of worker-owned co-operatives, created a regional co-operative bank, and urged other companies to spend locally. At the same time, it championed the Living Wage campaign. What were the results? Employment in Preston has increased, the quality of work has improved and so has the experience of living in the city. In 2018 Preston was voted the country’s ‘most improved city in which to live and work’.

Brown makes clear his approach is not new. It is essentially derived from comparable projects that originated in Mondragón in Spain and Cleveland, Ohio. He also points to places in Britain where the Preston model seems to be taking hold including parts of Wales and Scotland. The model works by identifying ‘anchor institutions’: public bodies which could be encouraged to spend locally. In 2013 the six institutions targeted originally (including Lancashire County Council) spent about £38 million in Preston; by 2017 the figure was £111 million. Some of this was done by identifying money leaking out of the local economy. The council encouraged the diversion of the money back home. One of the current anchor institutions is now the University of Central Lancashire which been encouraged to favour Preston suppliers. In 2016-17, that figure was only 21% of its procurement but that amounted to £63 million going back into the local economy. Preston is now investing in a municipally owned cinema and leisure centre to go with the regeneration of its town centre.

The Preston model was a creative response to a situation after 2010 where local government was made to bear the brunt of austerity. It was also a response to globalisation where investment can suddenly dry up, leaving communities stranded. We are now seeing comparable radical measures elsewhere, such as Andy Burnham’s decision to take Manchester’s buses back into municipal control.

Although the authors give their account a strong socialist colour scheme (linking the Preston model back to the Paris Commune), there is room for some scepticism. Even co-operatives have to buy and sell in the marketplace. Indeed, one could say there is a profound commercial logic behind what they have done. More also needed to be said about Preston’s private sector in the wake of this experiment. I would rather see this as a creative example of left wing social democracy: it amounts to a kind of localist Keynesianism for the 2020s. Brown elsewhere admits to being a pragmatist and, once one strips away some of the rhetoric here, one can see why. Brown tells us that he has received a sympathetic hearing from Conservatives in Preston because they appreciate the way he is supporting local businesses. That tells us something.

Clearly, on the basis of the 2021 local election result, Preston Council is doing something right but one should be alarmed that there are so few voices of ordinary people recorded in this book. Brown says that people need to be consulted so why are there are so few Prestonians here? It should also be said that Matthew Brown or Andy Burnham are not the only game in town when it comes to creative approaches to local government. Ben Houchen, the dynamic Tory mayor of Tees Valley, has nationalised the local airport and set up a development corporation which is devoted to creating 20,000 new jobs in the area. The result was the stunning victory by the Conservatives in the 2021 Hartlepool by-election.

One of the most important moments in the history of local government took place in Birmingham during the mid 1870s when Joseph Chamberlain as mayor took over the local gas company as well as the waterworks (both previously in private hands) and introduced a programme of slum clearance. Contemporaries called it 'gas and water socialism' and it was taken up as a model not only in Britain but around the world. We will need to see if the Preston model has the same kind of impact. This feels like one of the most creative examples of progressive politics for a generation.

Rohan McWilliam is Professor of Modern British History at Anglia Ruskin University and co-director of the Labour History Research Unit.