Preston, here in North West England, is having a bit of a moment. A moment about doing things for itself. Obvious things, in some ways, but a combination of obvious things that no one else is doing in quite the same ways. Economic things, social things, using your own resources and imagination kinds of things that are getting it a good deal of curious attention. So I’ve decided to come and have a look, and a listen.
Though Preston is fairly close to Liverpool it’s a London journalist, Aditya Chackrabortty, who’s brought what’s happening here to my attention in his new series about alternative approaches to the economics of running our places. And it’s Aditya who’ll be leading this night’s ‘Guardian Live’ discussion. First though, a look round.
Arriving at the station and up the slope into town I definitely haven’t been here in well more than twenty years. Since when two shopping precincts have arrived to squat in the centre of town but the grandeur of the place is nevertheless still recognisable from my memories.
At first I’m appalled to see a tent pitched in the closed down doorway of British Home Stores there. Then I think, well at least there’s still a doorway left for use and shelter here? Unlike the BHS and so many other doorways in my own Liverpool city centre?
The Harris is still here in all its municipal splendour, currently containing the works of one of tonight’s panel members, recent Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid.
Time soon to find where I’m going, somewhere in UCLAN, the University of Central Lancashire. A building that turns out to be next to one named in memory of Tom Finney, the greatly beloved Preston professional footballer and plumber. A man of the people and the best excuse so far to put his picture on the blog.
So to the evening’s discussion. Over 400 of us here and a panel of Aditya Chakrabortty with Preston city councillor Matthew Brown; Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan; the 2017 Turner prize winner, Lubaina Himid; and Ruth Heritage, the creative director of arts organisation They Eat Culture.
An hour of conversation between the panel, followed by thoughts from the rest of us. A palpable sense of energy from within Preston. Talk of institutions collaborating, taking back control, setting up institutional democracies, the town’s resilience, no single major employer, not waiting any longer for big external investments, a place rich in its own assets, unlocking its own skills, local banks, keeping money local. You get the idea.
‘I wouldn’t be so anti-establishment if the establishment was any good.’
But not perfect, not yet. Lubaina Himid:
‘I’ve stayed here 30 years now as it’s a good city to live in. Reasonably tolerant. Though it’s important there should be more discussions like this, which are visible, than behind the scenes between white men in suits.
And we need better connections between the city and its artists. We artists make connections like rocket science. We insist on social spaces to meet, chance encounters with ideas. We understand belonging and what’s special, you make a city from its artists outwards and we’re not there yet.
We need more co-operation, more co-operatives. Building local power bases that will be hard to dismantle as the place recovers.’
Afterwards Aditya says the continuation of this debate is “absolutely central to what comes next for Britain”. I think that’s true and it was a joy to be in a place with so much energy listening to so many good ideas.
To call it a ‘model’ though, as is being done seems both premature and wrong. And to be doing Preston no favours. It’s potentially a great work, in busy progress and to the considerable credit of its many participants and debaters. They’re pulling their place out of a very deep economic hole. But it’s far from done and not yet the ‘silver bullet’ answer to the prayers of so many of the rest of us. Not yet, if it ever will be?
Still it was an absolute joy to be in that room. A room full of the possibilities of, well, let’s call it municipal co-operative socialism. Not nostalgically done either. This was no all our yesterdays of social progress, but a place of pragmatic practicalities, of the people , by the people and for the people. It made me very happy.
Which is more than can be said for my journey home or some things I read the next morning, but let’s hold this moment. This moment that Preston is having. Let’s watch, listen and learn. All of us, very carefully.
The journey home? Well, out in the neo-liberal privatised wasteland of our rail network, my 30-odd mile journey from Preston to Liverpool took me three hours. Three hours of cancelled trains, delayed trains and unexplained nonsense, including the hour and a half frozen cold café closed bleakness of Wigan North Western on a Monday night. It’s no way to run a country.
Then I get up in the morning to read Olly Wainwright’s Guardian article about suspected strange goings on with property developments in Liverpool and Manchester. And feel uneasy and the beginnings of ashamed to read it all. Whether it turns out to be wrong doing or only wrong headedness there are questions that will need answering about the ways we do things here. So’s I can be as proud of my place, for all our arguments about how to run it, as are those people in Preston who I heard argue so proudly and lovingly on Monday night.
Big thanks to my friend and writer Lynsey Hanley for the invite and the ticket and sorry you couldn’t be there yourself. Though I wouldn’t have wished the journey home to Liverpool on anyone.