books politics

Paint Your Town Red, by Matthew Brown and Rhian Jones

I’m pretty sure I’ve ended dozens of posts here on the blog with the words ‘I’d love to see something like this in Luton’. That’s not something I need to say about the ‘Preston Model’. I heard about it first from friends in the council a few years ago. Luton has made good progress on the idea, and Preston gets a mention in The Economics of Arrival. But I hadn’t read a whole book about Preston and its experiment, and Paint Your Town Red looked like a useful introduction.

Preston is a large town/small city in the North of England. From around 2012 onwards, it began applying a strategy called Community Wealth-Building as a response to government budget cuts. This is a way of delivering regeneration with the assets that the town already has. Instead of waiting for funds from external sources, it focuses on creating an inclusive and collaborative local economy.

Preston didn’t invent most of the techniques. As the book describes, it draws on the extensive experience of others, including the Mondragon Cooperative in Spain and democratic economy principles developed in Cleveland, Ohio. What Preston did was creatively apply those existing ideas to their own context, at a scale and scope that hadn’t been tried in the UK before.

A central element of the strategy is ‘progressive procurement’. This is a pretty straightforward insight: big institutions in a town have a lot of money to spend. They need goods and services, and the more of those can be provided by local firms, the more of that spending will stay in the local economy. Preston identified £750 million in spending from its ‘anchor institutions’ – such as the council, the college, the police force and the NHS. Only 5% of that was spent with Preston-based companies, and 39% spent in the county. That left £458 million leaving the area every year. That seemed perverse at a time when the city was trying to lure in capital from elsewhere.

By building a town-wide commitment to relocalise spending, anchor institutions re-redirected hundreds of millions of pounds of spending back into the city over the next few years. Contracts included school meals, legal fees, and construction projects. When a contract was too big for local firms, it was broken into smaller contracts so that they could bid for parts of it. Where there was no suitable firm to take on a job, the council encouraged the creation of employee owned cooperatives that could take on the work. Among the new cooperatives in the town are a digital media coop and a taxi company. Several others are in development to deliver specific services such as translation, care and cleaning.

Over the last decade Preston has experimented with other forms of local economics, including shared ownership models, credit unions, locally invested pensions and banking. This hasn’t always connected with local people in the way they’d have liked, so there have been experiments in local democracy as well, including participatory budgeting. It’s been proven to work and it isn’t particularly complicated or radical – obviously it’s not a great idea to extract money from disadvantaged communities. As the authors insist, “much of what has been tried in Preston and elsewhere is merely common sense.”

All of this is explained in simple and straightforward terms in Paint Your Town Red. There are ‘how to’ sections and lots of pointers towards further reading or supporting organisations. It’s practical and accessible, and written by people who know what they’re talking about. Rhian Jones is a political historian, and Matthew Brown is the leader of Preston City Council. If you want to bring community wealth building to your town, Paint Your Town Red will show you how.

What’s Luton doing with this line of thinking, you might be wondering. Quite a lot, as it happens. There was an inclusive economy commission, and a report on community wealth building in Luton in 2020. That has found its way into a broader strategy called the Luton 2040 vision, which includes net zero by 2040, ending poverty and becoming a child-friendly town. So Luton is building on the work of Preston and combining it with the low carbon transition. We’re going to reach zero carbon while reducing inequality and building a more inclusive local economy, and that’s something that I am working to support where I can.

  • Paint Your Town Red is available from Earthbound Books UK – last date for Christmas shipping is 21st, by the way.
  • I got my copy from Voce Books in Birmingham, a new independent bookshop specialising in radical politics and translated fiction. Well worth stopping in if you’re in the area.

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