HOW IT STANDS
Preston City Council has been Labour-controlled since 2011. The election that should have taken place last year was cancelled after the onset of the pandemic.
At the last poll in 2019, Labour secured 30 of the authority’s 48 seats, with the Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups winning nine each. After an all-out election that year because of boundary changes, the council returns to electing a third of its seats on rotation, with 16 up for grabs this year.
The Post has been scouring the party pledges and priorities - and hearing the pitch to voters from each of the group leaders.
***Invest £1m in Covid recovery, tackling climate change and community wealth building.
***Regenerate city centre with £60m of public investment including in a Youth Zone, cinema and restaurant complex and reimagined Harris Museum.
***Work to increase local spend on goods and services to support jobs.
***Retain community food hubs and establish new food-purchasing co-operatives.
Council leader Matthew Brown proudly declares that his is a “radical” Labour authority – but one which does things “in a sensible way”. The principles of the so-called “Preston Model” run through the party’s manifesto – intended, according to Cllr Brown, to fix an “economic system that is letting people down and has done for decades”.
“We want to build a more resilient and democratic local economy where wealth is shared – and we have been encouraging the big institutions to pay the real living wage, as the city council already does, and making sure we invest locally and support local businesses. The principle is about trying to move beyond an extractive economy which just leaks wealth out of Preston,” Cllr Brown says.
He also wants to see the creation of up to to 20 employee-owned businesses in the city to add to the handful that already exist.
“The idea is that they can scale up by bidding for contracts potentially to supply the [likes of] the hospital or council.”
Many of the party’s plans are being seen through the prism of pandemic recovery, including an ambition to create a network of public sector organisations and private firms with a large Preston presence to encourage recruitment of residents who have lost their jobs in the wake of Covid.
Cllr Brown says that he also wants to see the council start building affordable housing.
“We’re looking at how we can [do that] again, either through a company or by working with [government agency] Homes England – because although we’ve got City Deal, which is delivering lots of housing, there is an issue of affordability for many people.”
Elsewhere, Cllr Brown pledges that the climate emergency will be another Labour priority, floating the idea that local public sector bodies could work together to develop “community energy” schemes.
He also says that the council is “committed” to the pandemic-delayed cinema complex on the site of the former market car park and believes that plans for a Youth Zone in the city – which recently received cash from the government’s Towns Fund – will help tackle anti-social behaviour.
***Taking local action to tackle the climate emergency.
***Ensure that there are sufficient amenities to serve new housing developments in the city.
***Empower communities by establishing parish councils in those areas without them which support their creation.
***Create a new standalone council for Central Lancashire to end the division of services between the city and county councils.
Lib Dem group leader John Potter says he wants the climate crisis to be a key council focus. He believes there is scope for the authority to “do better” at being greener – including by improving Preston’s recycling rate, which stood at 32 percent in 2019/20.
“At the budget, we proposed funding a climate change officer so we could do something about the climate emergency – at the moment, the council is talking about it without putting its money where its mouth is. We don’t have any problem with Labour’s Preston Model – but it’s not delivering any results, so we would take the money earmarked for that and put it into the climate emergency, because that’s what people care about,” Cllr Potter says.
He also wants housing built in the city to be carbon neutral and for developments to come complete with cycle routes.
Meanwhile, Cllr Potter claims that Preston is being “unfairly punished” by a government housing policy that means student accommodation built in the city does not count towards housebuilding targets. He says the consequences of insufficient amenities in areas of intense development around the north west of Preston are all too apparent.
“I hear it all the time from parents worried about getting their children into the same school as their siblings – the competition for places is getting more intense. We need schools in that area and community infrastructure as well, like shops. Preston can’t stand still, but we don’t want to be some toy town of just houses and nothing else.”
The Lib Dems in the city want to see Lancashire County Council scrapped and a new standalone authority created covering Preston and Central Lancashire.
“The county council isn’t working for Preston – it’s too inefficient and large to get issues fixed quickly. People don’t realise that County Hall is where most of our [council tax] money goes,” says Cllr Potter, adding that communities could benefit from the creation of parish councils in areas where they do not currently exist.
“We have seen defibrillators installed and community centres keot open [by parishes],” he adds.
***Introduce free parking in the city centre after 3pm.
***Support the development of a tram system to connect bus and rail networks to people’s homes.
***Promote residential development in the city centre and ensure the right housing is built in the right place.
***Make tackling climate change part of all council policies.
Conservative group leader Sue Whittam says that Preston needs to focus on measures that will “entice” people into the city centre as the pandemic subsides. To that end, she believes the city has to develop more of a night-time culture and consider what it can do to offer something different to larger destinations elsewhere in the North West.
“Preston really needs free parking after 3pm. I’d like [people] to be able to come and go for a nice meal, see an event – and not have to pay parking on top. And also if the shops would stay open a bit longer, you could do a bit of shopping [beforehand] and put it in your boot – whereas now everything shuts at 5.30.
“But we also need to move away from just shopping – because Manchester and Liverpool have shops that we don’t. Preston is a beautiful, cultural city – imagine the Harris, once it’s done up, being open at night, along with gorgeous cafes and bars and the cinema complex if we get it,” says Cllr Whittam.
The Conservatives say they will also consult on how to create “the right environment” in the city centre by looking at issues such as consumption of alcohol in the street and aggressive begging.
Cllr Whittam wants to see all council-owned car parks fitted with electric charging points, as part of a plan to put tackling climate change “at the heart of everything we do – not just an add on”. That would include supporting the development of a proposed tram system which could eventually reduce the need for cars travelling into the city centre.
The Tories are also putting clear blue water between themselves and Labour on the Preston Model of prioritising local procurement. Cllr Whittam says she is “unconvinced” by the concept.
“I’m all for supporting local – but not if it’s all local and nothing else. If, say, Lancaster and Rossendale were doing their own ‘models’, they wouldn’t be giving business elsewhere if you took it to the nth degree – there has to be a cut-off and I’d like to see evidence of where this is actually working.”
***Raising public awareness of air pollution in the city.
***Encouraging active forms of travel and reducing reliance on cars.
***Promoting development of brownfield sites over new estates on the fringe of the city.
***Supporting local businesses and jobs as part of the pandemic recovery.
Currently without any representation on the city council, the Green Party is fielding candidates in nine wards, having formed a local branch in Preston only two years ago. Its chair, David Nicholson, says that Green voices on the authority would seek to improve public understanding of levels of air pollution in the city – a problem which he says people would want to tackle if they realised it existed.
“The thing about unclean air is that it doesn’t look any different to clean air – it’s not like you have got bilious red clouds everywhere. If people’s awareness was raised, that would drive action faster than anything else. Our main focus would be on increasing the amount of information residents have about air quality and how we monitor it,” says Mr. Nicholson.
He warns that the highest levels of nitrogen dioxide in the city are largely due to the build-up of traffic – and says that as a way of combating that problem, the Greens would want to find ways to encourage people to reduce their car use.
“We have got the Preston Guild Wheel [cycling route], which is a fantastic thing – but we need spokes for the wheel. We need people to have the ability to cycle easily in and out of the city centre. Where there is new-build housing, we need to be creating cycle paths that are safe – away from roads.”
Mr. Nicholson acknowledges that the city council is “trying” to limit thee level of building on green spaces across the city, but believes that more could be done to “regenerate and re-energise certain parts of the city, rather than continually building identikit estates on the outskirts, with little attention to infrastructure”.
“Where housing has to be built in green space areas, it’s about creating green spaces within those areas. What we are seeing is the natural environment – hedges, fields and woodlands – just being decimated to build housing.”
The Greens are also calling for initiatives such as a local currency to help independent shops thrive after Covid – and support for entrepreneurs to step into the gaps left by retail collapses.