Evolving Local Democracy

This short review appeared in the |Guardian Review on Saturday last…………………….

Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too by Matthew Brown and Rhian E Jones, Repeater, £10.99

A gripping account of the community wealth-building scheme that turned a hard-up city’s fortunes around Lynsey Hanley

The Lancashire city of Preston, originator of artisans’ guilds, has long been overshadowed by its resurgent neighbours Liverpool and Manchester – but no longer. It’s now better known as the home of “the Preston model” of sustainable economic development, which has boosted local jobs and wages and shown a way to reinvent local government.

In 2011 Preston was in a bad way. The 2008 financial crash and its fallout left the Labour council with a choice: to live with Westminster-managed decline, or to consider – in spite of everything we’ve been told for the last 40 years – that there is an alternative.

With this book Preston city council leader Matthew Brown and writer Rhian E Jones make a compelling case for that alternative, blending a concise and unex­pectedly gripping account of Preston’s experiment in “community wealth building” with a guide to the grassroots activism that underpins it.

Community wealth building was first developed in Cleveland, Ohio. The city authority replaced multi­nationals with “purposely created worker co-ops” to supply laundry, catering and other services. The red­uced costs of “in-housing” these services enabled the creation of 5,000 jobs and a 15% pay rise for employees.

The council started small by procuring its services from local companies, then it invited the city’s other public employers to do the same. As more revenue stayed in the city, Preston incubated small businesses and became the north of England’s first living-wage employer. Now the council plans to establish a mutual bank, aiming to put loan sharks out of business.

It’s not just the right thing to do: it works. By 2020, Preston had achieved its highest employment rate and lowest levels of economic inactivity for more than 15 years, and in 2018 it was voted the UK’s most improved city to live and work in. It also shows how local authorities can make choices that benefit citizens rather than companies. As Brown and Jones state convincingly, that is what democratic government is for. Carry this book around with you and be reminded of what’s possible.

To buy a copy for £9.56 go to guardianbookshop.com.

Saturday 29 May 2021 The Guardian Review

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