Preston is well placed to prosper and rise above the UK’s current economic difficulties, says the influential Centre For Cities.
The think-tank’s chief executive gave a presentation to the Preston Partnership after being invited back to update members on the state of the city.
And Andrew Carter found room for optimism despite some negatives.
He gave his assessment of Preston’s economy and outlook for the future, revealing the city scores highly compared to others in terms of education and employment.But it fares less well in terms of empty shops and availability of good quality office space
Among the findings were:
• Preston has an 83 per cent employment rate – ranking 3rd out of 63 cities;
• Productivity is £52,400 per year, ranking 27th;
• Preston’s High Street vacancies are around 16 per cent. The average is 12;
• Wages are £50 a week lower than the national average at £504. It is ranked 36th;
• Early years education ranks 22nd and schools are 8th;
• Adult education is fourth – thought to be down to the excellent University of Central Lancashire;
• Preston only has around 15 per cent good quality office space, against a national average of 25 per cent.
Mr Carter told the Post that in general terms, the city was “around the middle” in the national league table and was showing signs of improvement.
He said: “I think Preston has been realistic and pragmatic about what needs to be done.
“They are working in very challenging conditions and these things can take a lot longer than the average person in the street would like.
“Overall they are going in the right direction and need to be consistent in making it happen.”
Mr Carter said a thriving city centre was vital - but it does not have to be all about shopping.
He said: “The city centre is a hub for the wider city itself.
“Retail is going through many problems at the moment.
“The most successful cities are the ones that have realised that retail only is not the way forward for city centres.”
Preston’s employment rate of 83 per cent fares well compared to other northern cities where a rate as low as 66 per cent rate can be found.
But how well-paying and secure those jobs are is not revealed.
Conversley, Preston’s productivity rate does not perform as well.
Productivity per worker in 2017 was £52,400, ranking it 27/62.
Mr Carter said this was because the North West as whole was down compared to the affluent South East.
“But looking around the North West and the North is it doing pretty well,” he added.
“The question is how can we support and encourage the place and support firms to expand and create more jobs?”
In common with the rest of the country, Preston’s high street is suffering from online shopping and changing trends.
It is trying to increase the city centre offering, with a revamped and rebuilt market and a cinema and other attractions planned.
Mr Carter said it was clear all cities need to diversify.
In his opinion a “retail failing area” could not become retail again.
Fishergate has a number of empty shops - including the huge BHS store which has been unoccupied since 2016.
It is feared that it will never be occupied by a major store again – unless it is broken into smaller units.
Mr Carter said: “It isn’t easy. Big buildings like that are probably never going to be used for retail again.
“They are a visible eyesore until they are dealt with.”
He added: “Preston does not perform particularly well in vacancy rates against the national average.
“The days are gone where retail will dominate a city centre.
“We need to make the city centre a place to live and work.
“Over many decades the city centre has become a place to shop - that is no longer relevant because of the changes that are going on in retail.”
Preston’s lack of good quality office accommodation – and city centre flats – is a problem the city is well aware of.
There are plenty of old and underused buildings – but they will need major conversions.
Mr Carter said: “Finding high quality office space is a challenge.
“Unless you can provide a decent supply you will not get the firms that you need to take up the space.
“The council has to step up and help to create office developments.
“Part of the challenge is to show developers of the need for places for people to live and work in the city centre.”
New masterplan for city centre
Recently a masterplan to regenerate a key area of Preston city centre was unveiled.
The Stoneygate Masterplan aims to breathe new life into an area that includes Queen Street Retail Park, Cardinal Newman College and St John’s Minster.
The masterplan sets out a long-term vision to attract investment into Stoneygate and realise its potential, with a focus on more attractive public spaces and creating new jobs and places to live.
Preston City Council is working with Lancashire County Council on the plans to create a better environment for residents, business owners, students and visitors alike through quality public realm improvements.
Manchester-based planning consultancy, Nexus Planning, has been brought in to create the vision for the masterplan.
Nearby, it is hoped a £3.5m project to create loft apartments in a former Preston warehouse should also be a catalyst for massive investment in the city centre.
The Union Lofts are taking shape in a Victorian warehouse on Guildhall Street.
Reasons to be optimistic
One area where Preston scores highly is education.
And that puts it in a strong position for the future, says Mr Carter. With a changing industrial landscape, it is predicted that many future city-based jobs will be digital or in the creative sector. The Centre for Cities chief said: “If you think about the long term, educating people to have the right skills is key. If you have a good level of education, like in Preston, there is reason to be optimistic.”