We’d all like to believe in Preston. The Labour-led Lancashire city has, over the last decade, been pioneering its own version of community wealth-building, a concept described as both “guerrilla localism” and “extreme common sense”. What it means, at its simplest, is that money spent in a city by “anchor institutions” – hospitals, universities, housing associations, the council – as much as possible stays in the city. Contracts for catering or construction, rather than going to faceless London-based or international corporations, go to local businesses.
Rather than go to remote shareholders, cashflow and profits stay in the immediate area, not only giving economic benefits to citizens, but also involvement in and ownership of local decision-making. Residents can “take back control” – not in the ersatz sense offered by Brexit slogans, but in concrete and practical ways. In what might have been a classic “red wall” area – an old industrial town where voters feel let down by successive governments – the Labour vote has held up, including in the recent local elections.
There’s a shortage of voices from satisfied citizens, as opposed to the businesses most likely to approve of the model
The “Preston model”, as it is called, could, if applied all over the country, be revolutionary, which is why the former shadow chancellor John McDonnell is one of its fans. So Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too, an account of the story so far and a handbook for realising it elsewhere, is potentially an important work. It is co-authored by Matthew Brown, the leader of Preston city council and chief architect of the Preston model, and Rhian E Jones, a writer on history, politics and popular culture.
The book describes Preston’s inspirations – the Basque town of Mondragon, for example, where a set of participatory co-operatives, set up in the 1950s, grew into what is now the seventh largest company in Spain. Also, the Evergreen Cooperatives, in the rust belt city of Cleveland, Ohio, which “created 5,000 jobs from Cleveland’s hospital network alone”. Paint Your Town Red points out the similarities between these schemes and the mutual aid societies that contributed to the growth of the Labour movement in Britain.
It sets out the main instruments of the Preston model. There is “progressive procurement”, which means the directing of contracts from “anchor institutions” to local businesses, and the establishment of workers’ co-operatives, especially where there are gaps in the existing local market of suppliers of particular services. There is “financial support for the community”, which means such measures as paying a living wage and employment practices that “prioritise the welfare” of workers. A “regional community bank”, which, among other things, would have a physical presence on the high street, is hoped for in the future.
The book describes other applications of Prestonian principles, by the Welsh assembly, in North Ayrshire, Birmingham and North of Tyne. It sketches ways in which you, the reader, might get involved in creating community and co-operative initiatives and in pushing your local council to support them.
In all of which the fundamental question is, does it work? Does the patent good sense of the idea get befouled by unintended consequences and unexpected pitfalls? If the Cleveland and Mondragon experiments are so great, why are they not more widely applied? Because of the hostility of financial elites or for more basic reasons?
Here, Paint Your Town Red could do more. It tells us that “in the past five years, Preston council and its partners have almost tripled their spending in the local economy, from £38m to £111m”. Good, but there’s limited detail as to how it has played out across the city. There’s a shortage of voices from satisfied citizens, as opposed to the officials and businesses most likely to approve of the model. Criticisms – that it could lead to a sort of local protectionism, for example – are rather vaguely addressed, and the source of these critiques not identified by name.
Too often, there is a tone of wishful thinking and special pleading, of talking up initiatives that in some cases seem tentative and insubstantial. This is evident when the authors refer to “the fact that the [Bernie] Sanders and Corbyn moments did not result in conclusive electoral success”, which is something of an understatement, given Labour’s worst defeat since the 1930s.
If the Preston model works, it will stand up to more robust examination than Paint Your Town Red offers; if it doesn’t, then it’s time to learn from it and move on. But if it is really going to slay the dragons of global finance, the Preston model will have to go into battle with better weapons than this book provides. Which, very probably, it deserves.
• Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too by Matthew Brown and Rhian E Jones is published by Watkins Media (£10.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply