Preston is the most improved city in the UK, according to a new study.
The commercial capital of Lancashire has topped its big brother neighbours Manchester and Liverpool over the past 12 months in a survey of 42 of the largest cities.
Preston is showing the rest of the nation a clean pair of heels based on a combination of its economic performance and quality of life.
The seventh annual Good Growth For Cities Index shows Preston out front ahead of other improvers like Middlesbrough, Hull, Milton Keynes, Birmingham and Aberdeen.
“Preston has punched above its weight for several years now and the scale of improvement is clear for all to see,” said Mark Whittle, manager of Preston Business Improvement District (BID).
“It is a city that doesn’t need to emulate the Manchesters of this world. Preston offers quite a unique visitor experience which is gathering momentum on a daily basis.
“With a line of investors setting their sights on city real estate and a thriving start up sector in full swing, the city now offers the complete package in which to live, work and do business.
“These are exciting times.”
Preston’s improvement over the past year comes after a good year all round for the North West, especially in terms of employment.
The 2018 Demos-PwC index has analysed a decade of economic and social data to determine what long-term factors drive good growth.
The index measures the performance of 42 of the UK’s largest cities, England’s Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and the nine Combined Authorities, against a basket of 10 indicators based on the views of the public as to what is key to economic success and well-being.
These include employment, health, income and skills - the most important factors, as judged by the public - while housing affordability, commuting times, environmental factors and income inequality are also included, as is the number of new business starts.
But in most cases the results reflect the impact of substantial falls in unemployment rates reaching out across all parts of the UK.
Preston Council leader Coun Matthew Brown said: “We are really pleased to see the results of this report highlight the great progress we have made, and are still making in Preston.
“This success is based on practical policies to build wealth for the whole community collaboratively with a number of partners.
“Employment, health, income and skills are important factors for economic success and wellbeing and we are proud to receive national recognition for the improvement in these areas that has been made in the city in the last 12 months.
“There is still much work to be done, but we are up to the challenge and continue to invest in a future to benefit everyone.”
Top 10 most improved cities in UK:
Top 10 performing cities overall:
‘The places where we want to live and work are more important than ever’
Greater Manchester is the most improved combined authority, says the study.
The research shows that English combined authorities have made improvements in each area compared to last year’s report.
Greater Manchester’s success, says the Demos PwC Index, is primarily as a result of an increase in the number of new business start-ups per head.
However, overall the West of England extends its lead at the top of the index rankings for combined authorities, driven by increasing skills amongst both the 16-24 and 25-64-year-old age brackets.
All Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) within the North West also scored above average for the jobs variable, with each also measuring on or above average for new businesses, work-life balance, house price to earnings, skills and the environment.
The survey says that following the financial crisis there has been a clear trend of falling unemployment across the North West.
This has continued to improve over the past year, with three of the region’s five cities seeing their largest increase in jobs.
PwC says that since 2014-16 the Northern Powerhouse has experienced a substantial increase in the jobs component of the index as a result of falling unemployment. There has also been a significant increase in the number of new businesses per head.
John Hawksworth, chief economist at PwC, said: “Almost all UK cities have seen improved good growth scores in recent years, driven primarily by cyclical falls in unemployment rates that have now rippled out from the South East of England to regions like the North East that were previously lagging behind.
“But the more interesting perspective is provided when we look at the whole decade from 2005-7 to 2015-17, which covers a whole economic cycle and therefore allows us to identify deeper structural trends.
“The good news here is that successive cohorts of young workers have higher average skill levels, which is pushing up index scores together with rising rates of new business creation in most cities.
“But the flip side of this success has been worsening housing affordability and consequent falls in home ownership rates precisely for those young people who have invested in acquiring new skills. As they are pushed further from city centres to afford a place to buy or even rent, average commuting times have also risen.
“Having largely recovered from the financial crisis, addressing the housing and infrastructure supply constraints that drive these negative trends will be key challenges for the next decade for both central and local government, looking beyond the immediate issues around Brexit.”
The index shows that almost all major UK cities improved their score relative to the 2017 index, driven primarily by rising employment.
However, the “price of success” has also become increasingly evident recently as we see declining scores since last year’s index for transport, owner occupation rates and particularly housing affordability, which highlights some of the ongoing challenges faced by UK cities.
“Against an uncertain economic and political backdrop caused by Brexit, the places where we live and work are more important than ever,” said Jonathan House, local public services and health lead advisory partner at PwC.
“It is vital that place leaders do all they can to take this current uncertainty in their stride, provide the stability needed for growth and reassurance for their communities to see them through for the longer term.
“Whether you’re a council leader, Mayor or LEP chair, place leaders need to be able to tell the story of their city in a way that resonates on the doorstep and on the world stage, for today and for the future. Local industrial strategies require a step change in collaboration across a place, with connective leadership bringing together the best of the public sector and business to develop the shared evidence base that is critical to understanding a city’s USP.
‘It is well deserved ... the city is now moving up’
A key figure in Preston’s regeneration believes the accolade is well deserved.
But modest Simon Rigby, the businessman who has pumped millions into revitalising the city, insists it has been about teamwork, not individuals.
“I think it is well deserved recognition for the team effort that Prestonians and adopted Prestonians have put in,” he told the Post.
“I do believe that after years of spiralling down the city is now moving up.”
Simon bought the ailing Guild Hall from Preston City Council and turned it back into a major entertainment complex, with restaurants, bars and leisure facilities.
He has also invested heavily in other parts of the city centre, including buying the former Fives building in Guildhall Street and the Guild Tower office block behind the Guild Hall.
And he is reported to be involved in bringing the once grand Park Hotel overlooking Miller and Avenham Parks back to its Victorian spledour.
Talking about the Good Growth For Cities honour, he added: “I am proud of the role the Guild Hall has played in this and the way Preston has supported us.”
Florist Margaret Mason, the longest serving trader in Preston city centre, added: “I’m absolutely delighted to hear about this.
“I’m Preston through and through and for this city to be voted the UK’s most improved is absolutely fantastic.
“It’s nice when people see how hard we are all working to make this city so successful.
“Everyone is pulling together and that is something we should all be very proud of.”