Preston local elections 2022: The big election debate - the city's top politicians try to persuade you to back their party at the polls this week

Ahead of the Preston City Council elections on Thursday (5th May), the Local Democracy Reporting Service brought together the group leaders of the three parties currently represented on the authority to discuss the big issues in the city.

Sunday, 1st May 2022, 2:49 pm
Updated Sunday, 1st May 2022, 2:49 pm

You can watch the full debate in the video above or read the highlights below.

Taking part in the event were Cllr Matthew Brown (the Labour leader of Preston City Council), Cllr Sue Whittam (Conservative opposition group leader) and Cllr John Potter (Liberal Democrat group leader).

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PRESTON’S PRIORITIES

As life in the city begins to look more normal than it has done for the past two years, the politicians each gave us their top priority for the year ahead.

SUE WHITTAM

“It’s going to be a slow recovery out of Covid, but this year I want to see more going into health and…our parks and green spaces, because I feel that people value these now. We do need to really look at people’s health, including mental health. I think people have been really damaged by…Covid and people with long Covid are still suffering. The districts have done a lot of work during the pandemic, [as have] the voluntary and faith sector…so [there are] a lot of partnerships we can get up and running with people, helping and getting involved with lots of local charities. And I think [with] mental health…our role as councillors [in] signposting people to get the help they need is really important – so although we may not actually do the work, we will make sure people get the help and support they need.”

The three parties contesting all of the seats up for grabs at the Preston City Council elections on 5th May, as represented by (from left to right): Labour group and current council leader Matthew Brown, Conservative opposition group leader Sue Whittam and Liberal Democrat group leader John Potter

MATTHEW BROWN

“Obviously, we need to recover from the pandemic and we’re going to throw everything at doing that, but what we did see during the pandemic was how, if you’re less well off, you are going to be more badly affected by ill health. So…we do want to see regeneration [and] jobs, but we want to make sure that wealth is shared around a lot more equally and that is why we are going to continue with a lot of the policies we’re pursuing, which are quite transformative, around trying to put more of the wealth that we produce within Preston in the hands of more people and local businesses – and raise wages and build more affordable houses. We can’t pretend that [the] pandemic hasn’t happened – people are grieving for [those] that they’ve lost, people have long Covid symptoms. We’ve got to work with the NHS and make sure we get services into the communities that need them.”

JOHN POTTER

“Obviously recovery from Covid has got to happen and we’ve got to look for a vision for the future, but one thing that’s absolutely immediate…is the cost of living crisis. People are going to be absolutely terrified going forward – how will they afford to feed their families, …keep warm [and] afford to keep the lights on? This is going to be an absolutely existential threat to many people in the city – and not just the very poorest. And if it’s ever been apparent that we need to do something about climate change and…being energy secure in the city and helping people – whether that’s with insulation or ways they can save money – then we have to do that as well. There are lots of other community groups and churches, loads of other societies [which] help people every day in this fantastic city, but what [the council] has to be is the orchestra to get them where they need to be.”

LEVELLING UP THE CITY

Preston is poised to submit a bid for £20m from the government’s Levelling Up Fund, with a proposal to replace the city’s Old Tram Bridge, invest in some of its flagship parks and improve cycling and walking facilities. But is it the best package for the city?

MATTHEW BROWN

“It’s been a longstanding ambition of ours to have a decent health facility within the city centre [and] it remains so. We need to work with partners and…those conversations will continue. The Levelling Up Fund was one potential vehicle for it. The challenge that we do have is that the government are very inflexible around timescales…to actually bring these schemes to bear. It’s something we would have liked to have done and we needed post-pandemic. We’ve got a fantastic scheme now…and the tram bridge is only £6m or £7m of a £20m bid. We have always wanted it resolved. I make no apologies for looking at a wide number of schemes and seeing what is going to deal with the aftermath of Covid and the inequalities which were so devastating within it.”

JOHN POTTER

“Anybody who talks to council officers knows it’s…very difficult and time consuming to actually get hold of this funding, But for me, the big thing for this fund is actually getting ourselves prepared. We’re about to have the new GCHQ come just outside the city [the cybersecurity development at Samlesbury] – a massive opportunity for jobs, [for] people to move to the area [and] fantastic training opportunities for citizens of Preston. But we need to make sure that we benefit from it [by] actually having a co-ordinated, well-thought-out plan, so Preston can capitalise on this investment… as it will not only bring jobs in itself, but also jobs in the wider economy.”

SUE WHITTAM

“We would have preferred a scheme that brought a health hub into Preston. I understand that we do need to do something with [the tram bridge], the council cannot allow for it to drop into the river and cause blockages and damage the environment, so something needs to be done. I think linking it to the parks is great but I’d also like to have seen parks like Haslem Park benefit from this and others, not just our main flagship parks. {The council] may have done the best they can at the moment with [the bid], but unfortunately years later, we’re still nowhere with the health hub and the discussions with the NHS.”

BIG-SCREEN VISION

The green light was given last month to a new £41m cinema and leisure complex on the site of the old Preston indoor market and car park. The council-owned facility will include restaurants, a bowling alley and street food hub. But is it distinctive enough to add to the city’s appeal as a destination – and what about empty properties elsewhere in the city centre?

JOHN POTTER

“All three of us voted in favour of it. Retail is not going to be the driving force that it once [was]. It has to be more of an entertainment and location-based offer that you give. And, actually, that’s part of what the cinema development will do – be that anchor institution to then draw extra stuff in. The town centre is looking a bit…sparse in some areas, but we’ve got to do better and this is one way that we can do. There is a lot of money involved in it [and] there is a lot of risk to the council involved in it. But to do nothing is the worst of all worlds, we had to do something. Sometimes it has been one step forward and two steps back, but the city is moving in the right direction and we should all be very proud of what is to come from our city.”

SUE WHITTAM

“The trouble is we’re always in competition with Manchester and Liverpool – and …it’s going to look no different than any other place, except [that] we’re years behind. So we have to come up with something different and [with]…some of the chains the students want. We talk about how closely we work with UCLAN, but does anybody ever ask what people do want in our city? And that is one of the things that always intrigues me – what do the people want…what would bring them back into the city? At the moment, the city is dying on its feet, unfortunately – and it’s not helped with all the anti-social behaviour. We need to offer something different that moves us away from Manchester and Liverpool – and we’d like to see a lot of independent, local businesses wanting to branch out into the Preston centre.”

MATTHEW BROWN

“We need to have a mix of independent and national chains within it, but, crucially, when we build that asset, it’s going to be owned by the city, we have a say over local suppliers and local labour [and] it will be built to the highest environmental standards. [It will] link very much to the market traders, because there is going to be a street food hub that will have independent businesses. Ideally, I would have liked the majority or all of them to be independent Preston firms, but it’s got to wash its face [financially]. There is going to be a Youth Zone, which will be an independent charity, and we’ve taken [the decision] to refurbish Amounderness House, which will have local, independent businesses in there. So give it two or three years, which isn’t that long in Preston’s history, and you will see a substantial improvement.”

GOING GREEN AND GETTING A BUS

Having declared a climate emergency back in 2019, is Preston progressing quickly enough with a plan to go carbon-neutral by the end of the decade? And is Lancashire County Council’s recently-announced enhanced bus partnership – a £34m scheme which will see it get more involved in fare prices and timetabling – the solution to Preston’s current bus reliability problems?

JOHN POTTER

“At the moment, I don’t think there is the political will to drive forward [the green agenda] and I’ve been incredibly frustrated. We came forward, the Lib Dem group, and said there is no point politicians chatting – anyone can chat – we need to get stuff done. And to get stuff done, you have to have officers in place to do it. We put forward that proposal last year – unfortunately, it was rejected by both Labour and the Conservatives and then, months after [the budget], it finally happens, because we were right. Now we need to make sure that [the] officer, who is going to hopefully facilitate all sorts of new green initiatives within the city, has a bit of money to be able leverage other money [and] to get more stuff done. Because it is not looking great – our recycling rates are so bad, I think they have dropped down to 29 percent. We are shockingly bad compared to where we should be.”

MATTHEW BROWN

“We took a political decision to have a cabinet member for climate change [and] now a climate change officer. We have a number of plans…[and] the Levelling Up Fund bid has active travel, cycling and improvements to public transport [in it] as well. I am making the argument… that we should be franchising buses. If you’re in…Andy Burnham’s Greater Manchester, you’d be able to get on a bus…and go from one side of Greater Manchester to the other for a maximum of £2. I’m suggesting as part of the [proposed] county deal [with the government] that we need something similar. Unfortunately, we’ve got this very weak enhanced bus partnership, where in my opinion, the bus companies take the local politicians for a ride. We’re [also] having discussions with the NHS at the moment about how we can generate either solar energy or onshore wind energy – the problem…is we need to have some support from the government…as well as getting decent funding…for things like retrofitting homes.”

SUE WHITTAM

“I don’t agree with [bus] franchising at all. I looked up today how much it’s costing Andy Burnham and it’s £135m – we couldn’t do a similar sort of thing in Preston, you have to do it across Lancashire and I don’t think it’s an option. I think the money that has gone into this enhanced bus partnership will come up with a load of new ideas. I’d love to see trams in Preston…and [you could] hop on trams or buses. Especially [in] the rural areas [people] really are struggling with some of the buses. What tends to happen…is that when a [housing] development is granted, the monies go to subsidising the bus service [for] two to three years and then as soon as the money dries up, it’s not a viable route [anymore]. I think we have to work with the bus companies [and] get the best deals we can, because that’s the only solution.

HOUSING HOPES

As Preston continues to work with neighbouring Chorley and South Ribble on a joint local plan for Central Lancashire, which will dictate the scale and type of development across Central Lancashire for the next 15 years, what do Preston’s politicians want to see in it?

MATTHEW BROWN

“We are getting lots of homes being built and we’re doing pretty well about getting affordable houses [on] those estates as well …but there is a real issue around funding the schools, parks, GP surgeries and other things that we wanted. What’s happened with the CIty Deal, which enabled this house building ten years ago, is that the government have changed the rules, so the New Homes Bonus [paid to councils for new dwellings], that would have paid for all of [the additional facilities], has been cut. We are getting housing estates, but we are not getting the infrastructure we need. So it’s something that I have been lobbying for as leader. In terms of the local plan more widely, we need to make sure it deals with the climate crisis…but also the tenure of housing. I think it’s really important to make sure that we have some larger homes so that minority communities, especially, can afford to live…in affordable houses.”

SUE WHITTAM

“It’s really difficult – the planning authority cannot dictate where GP surgeries are, where dentists are, where a lot of things are that people need in place [in order] to live in an area. So they buy a house that has not really got access to any of the services that they need at all. Looking at..a new local plan coming in place, I know we work closely with Chorley and South Ribble, but it seems to be on a bit of a hit-and-miss basis – they’ll work with us on the things they want to work [on] and they don’t on other things. So I think we need to take a closer look at what’s needed and actually start putting some extra policies in which will give residents the security they need [to] know that when they do go and move [into] an area they’ve got the services that they need.”

JOHN POTTER

“[The new local plan] has to be robust. The North West of Preston [has been] getting a lot of housing, but actually some of that other stuff that [should come] with it has not been there. There has to be housing – we do have housing shortage, not just in Preston, but the rest of the country, so we do need to build houses, but are we building the right type of houses? Are we building houses that are zero carbon, are we doing enough to mitigate the issues of biodiversity problems in the city as part of the planning process? It’s all about trying to ensure we don’t just build houses, but we build good houses in good locations that fit the demands of the city – not just vast areas of housing that line the pockets of developers.”

DEVOLUTION DELUSION?

Earlier this year, Lancashire’s 15 council leaders agreed the draft basis of for pursuing a long-awaited devolution deal with the government. When the agreement came to Preston City Council, the ruling Labour group amended it to call for Lancashire to get powers and cash akin to other parts of the North West which have already struck deals. It caused a cross-party spat at the time – and where does it leave the city now?

MATTHEW BROWN

“A very minor adjustment [was made] and it was based around aspiration. I said we should aspire to have similar powers to Greater Manchester and Merseyside, because we’re getting left behind, to be honest, [in terms of] some of the things they are doing…around bus franchising, skills, fair employment charters [and] saying that people should get a real living wage with access to mental health support. I even said as well we should be looking to lobby government to build social housing at scale. But as part of any negotiating process you tend to start high and end up somewhere a bit [further] down. We have really started right at the bottom, pretty much, with a very unambitious deal – and potentially we won’t even get all of that, so that is why I’m going to keep fighting, obviously.”

SUE WHITTAM

“Matthew, you went round the table as the leader and reassured John and I throughout this process that you were at the table [and] all on board with this – and then, at the eleventh hour, you pulled the plug on it. But this wasn’t the [final] deal, this was just the framework for moving forward together to come up with a deal – and it only happened that the [Levelling Up] white paper came out [with further details], or else you weren’t in the deal. There is still that will to work together, but I do feel that an element of trust has been broken there, because you said one thing in one room and said another thing in another room and that was pretty disappointing, to be honest.”

JOHN POTTER

“One of the key planks on getting the current [outline] deal was no mayors – otherwise there is no way the 15 authorities would have agreed to it. We need a Central Lancashire unitary authority [a standalone council potentially for Preston, Chorley, South Ribble and West Lancashire]. Until we wrestle back some of that power from the huge council that is the county council and actually have a little bit more local control, I don’t think Preston can grow half as much as it should be able to and I think we might all be in agreement here [on that]. You can [then] speak as one voice, one council, driving whoever’s political agenda it is.”