July 29, 2021

Unlike so many global landmarks — the Sydney Opera House, say — Preston Bus Station is actually much bigger than it appears in the photos. A decade ago, the undulating brutalist rib was considered an archetype of the failure of Sixties urban planning, an avatar of a North in decline. Plans circulated to knock it down.

In recent years, though, Europe’s largest bus station has had the sandblasters round; the facade doesn’t exactly shimmer, but now it seems friendly. One side of the terminus has been pedestrianised. It has always been a great way to get out of Preston. Now, it might even be a great way to arrive.

“It’s about investing,” Matthew Brown gushes. “All it needed was someone to think long term.” The Leader of Preston City Council is a Labour man almost to the point of caricature: a lanky Lancastrian in a flat cap and thick British Racing Green workers’ shirt. Increasingly, he is also an unlikely Lenin to a new wave of global leftism. The stuff he’s doing here, not too far from the factories whence Friedrich Engels once minted his champagne kitty, has been profiled all over the world as “The Preston Model”.

Until their defeat, when Corbynites wanted to point to an economic policy, they would often wave towards Preston. John McDonnell was a frequent visitor. Funds had been earmarked, in the event of a 2019 Labour victory, to frank Prestonist policies across the country. More lately, yesterday’s man Ed Miliband devoted an entire chapter of his new book, Go Big: How To Fix Our World, to the town’s schemes. In an age of thinning possibilities, Preston seems to suggest somewhere that the Left can go.

From the brow of the hill, Brown points to a big hole in the centre of town, where a slew of brutalism has been torn down. Soon, it will rise again, as a cinema, owned by the council, and run by an independent contractor: the Preston model is based on keeping money in circulation in the town, rather than having it bleed back to some distant corporate HQ. The contracts for the old building’s demolition were won by local businesses.

But the problem with buying local is so obvious entire books have been written about it. The nation-state is inherently redistributive: that’s part of the bargain. The block grant that Preston receives from central government is funded through the dark satanic number mills of Canary Wharf. But once it arrives, they convert capitalism into socialism: a perfect economic cycle.

Just outside the Council’s offices, a cafe-restaurant has been turned into a worker’s co-operative, The Larder (4.5 stars on Google reviews). “It’s about putting power in people’s hands,” Brown tells me. In his section of the Left — the one that once contained Tony Benn — democratic participation is the cure for all ills. It’s an idea that seems to conform to basic human psychology: taking decisions at the closest level of organisation won battles for the Wehrmacht, and profits for GE.

How you get to that point is a different issue. Whereas previously socialism asked how can a state become like a company — incorporating workers into its overall plan — Prestonism asks: How can a company become more like a state, giving democracy to the workers? “With a co-operative,” Brown says, “everyone gets a vote. From the cleaner to the managing director.”

But where will the money come from? This is the eternal dance of history. The Left says: wouldn’t it be nice if we all worked as a team and pooled our winnings. To which the Right replies: yes, it would. You first.

Yet Brown points to a student accommodation block: black brick, four storeys, undistinguished, but no failure. It was funded by the Lancashire Pension Fund. “See, there are millions of pounds that would otherwise go to fund something in Abu Dhabi.” But if a new spa resort in Abu Dhabi pays a higher rate of return, that might be useful to the Prestonian pensioners scraping by. And worse: if the market in Preston collapses, well, there are suddenly a lot of eggs in one local basket.

Still, there is something here that most “neoliberal” economic theory doesn’t quantify well: the power of reputation, and observation. Nassim Taleb touched on it with his idea of Skin In The Game. If the Lancashire Pension Fund goes bust, the university accommodation managers will have their own community to answer to. And the Lancashire Pension Fund can at least keep a much closer eye on their asset here than they might on, say, a condo block in Vancouver.

At its heart, the Preston Model is a reaction against globalisation, on a Legoland scale. We are alienated from the fruits of our labour, and that gap between the observable allows for all sorts of perversions to creep in. In the long run Preston will always be out-competed by the forces of capital — an invisible shapeshifting enemy — but at an instinctual level, they’re not onto nothing.

There’s a certain vacant fatalism, for instance, in the attitude of Councillor Ron Woollam, deputy leader of the Preston Tories, to what the town centre should actually look like, who it should be for. “We’re quite worried about the bank actually,” he says. “We don’t think it’s the job of the council to be making these kinds of investments… and as to the model, well, we keep asking for evidence, if it’s worked then there should be signs. But none is ever really forthcoming. In fact, we think it’s actually discouraging investment. People are put off by the meddling.”

A decade ago, LendLease turned up in Preston. Britain’s largest property investors had successfully backed Liverpool’s One mall development. Now, they proposed to extend the favour to Preston with a £700 million investment. Heavy change. But the deal fell through, in part due to niggles from the Labour-lead council.

LendLease might have been something great for Preston. But then, as anyone who has been to a British shopping mall will know, this is highly unlikely. The town’s gig staple, The Warehouse, “would have been bulldozed if the shopping centre had gone ahead,” Brown tells me. Here, Joy Division recorded a live album twelve weeks before Ian Curtis’ death. Here, generations of bands have had their start.

Now, instead of LendLease’s glistening food courts, what persists is a far smaller rebuild of the old Edwardian market, reborn in glass panels with independent traders. Paired with where the cinema will go, it’s a core that will likely revitalise the downtown precinct: a place worth congregating, in a town centre worth spending money in.

But that invites problems of its own. If the Preston Model is as successful as its inventors boast, then Big Capital will be along soon, ready to get its tentacles of jobs and investment into the place. So what’s an ardent socialist to do? Is this a model that can only win under conditions of failure?

In this country, we aren’t even close to answering these questions. In France, where they think from their gut first and add their reason after, they have long maintained a separate tax code for small business. Their small, independent shop sector thrives, but their big enterprises do OK too. The Monop’ is at the end of your block, but Marie at the boulangerie also gets by. In the UK, the Tesco Express squats at the end of your block, and the boulangerie is a Gregg’s. We don’t seem to have a cultural mechanism to price the value of autonomy, of community connections. And through some twisted vision of materialism, we don’t seem to believe that we even should.

As national politics comes to seem ever-more removed from our lives, the Left especially is retreating to a local level, where they can still hold power. But then, alongside this localism of the Left, the Right are also becoming invested in their own notions of local: of tradition, authenticity, capital-P Place. Preston was the site of the last battle fought on English soil — the Jacobite rebellion of the Young Pretender.  Now that the Left has bet its future on an ex-mill town in Lancashire, it may again decide who reigns.