City without a centre

Downtown Lancashire in Business recently launched its ‘BIG Conversation’ series of events with senior decision makers, business leaders and entrepreneurs looking at the future of the Red Rose county.

Our first debate, which included contributions from Preston council leader Peter Rankin and Paul Swinney from leading UK Think Tank Centre for Cities, asked the question, Preston: Town or City?

Since being awarded the badge over a decade ago, has Preston been able to maximise city status to derive economic development and business growth?

There was an overwhelming feeling that Preston had been unable to take advantage of the opportunity, not least because of the view from neighbouring towns that what was good for Preston was bad for them.

It is a theme that has often been repeated during the past five years in various Downtown forums, but Swinney was able to articulate the point very effectively that a stronger Preston would actually result in a stronger Lancashire.

Just as Liverpool is the recognised hub and therefore centre for economic growth in Merseyside and likewise Manchester in Greater Manchester, Preston could and should be accepted as the county’s hub whose success would add value to not just the city but to the whole of Lancashire.

Politicians and political structures have been the main barrier for such an approach to be adopted in the county. Internecine warfare has existed between the east and the west of Lancashire for many years, worsened significantly by the decision to grant Unitary Council status to Blackburn and Blackpool.

A private sector-led, strategic organisation would surely see the sense in mirroring what has proved successful not only in other parts of the North West but right across the globe and implement a policy agenda that would begin to develop a city region strategy with Preston at the heart of such an initiative.

Step forward the relatively new Lancashire Enterprise Partnership! We are told this is a private sector led body, but its thinking and approach does not appear to differ hugely from that which went before. It seems to me that Preston is being treated no differently from Pendle. The limited resources available to the LEP will be distributed equally across the county, ensuring that none of the county’s political fiefdoms are upset or put out. Cynics may suggest it is a strategy developed and delivered by those decision makers who sit in County Hall, rather than the business leaders who sit on the LEP.

A recent Downtown poll showed that 81% of our members do not think the LEP is working. To regain what can best be described as lost momentum, we need broader private sector engagement and input into the organisation, a more business savvy blueprint for the future that accepts the need for a central Lancashire economic hub and much more effective communication.

The conclusion to our debate: Preston Town or City? It is a city without a centre. The same could be said of our county at the moment.

Frank McKenna