Preston may not be region's newest city for much longer

Frank McKenna

Having recently launched the Downtown brand in Manchester, and operated a business in Liverpool for six years, it is easy to see why many people across Lancashire shake their heads in disbelief when I tell them that Preston has the opportunity and potential to become a great North West city in its own right.

Manchester has emerged during the past twenty years as the UK’s second city, whilst Liverpool’s fortunes have been transformed on the back of a successful European Capital of Culture year in 2008.

You only have to walk around both cities to feel the sense of confidence and progress that they have both enjoyed, compared to the rather depressing environment that you encounter on a visit to Preston. So why do I think that the future’s bright, the future’s Preston?

For one thing, the location of the Lancashire city is superb. The motorway network, enabling you to travel across the region with relative ease, alongside a very good and improving rail service, gives Preston an advantage over many of its competitors.

The fact that the city centre remains virtually untouched means that it is ripe for investment, and at a much more affordable price than is the case in either Liverpool or Manchester.

And the quality of some of the professional services, and an emerging creative and new media sector, offers optimism that we are developing a diverse business culture that will compliment the strong traditional industries, such as manufacturing, that we have relied upon in the past.

I spoke in my last column about apathy and cynicism among the Preston community being a barrier to growth. In addition, the lack of civic entrepreneurship and a lack of a clear vision add to the sense that there is no big idea, or real leadership and direction.

This week will see the conclusion of Downtown Preston’s ‘City Thinking’ initiative. I’m hopeful that it will produce an agenda for change that both the public and private sectors can get behind, and provide a compass to progress that has been woefully missing up to this point. Watch this space.

Certainly, we have to get a move on. The Preston Guild is just around the corner, offering the perfect platform to showcase what is best about Preston, and by the end of 2010 a final decision, one way or the other, will have been made about Tithebarn, removing any excuse for further dilly dallying over city centre renewal.

But, on the horizon, bids from other ambitious towns aiming to be a city. Bolton has enjoyed a very good decade, and plans a city status bid of its own. Similarly Wigan’s growth and regeneration has encouraged its civic leaders to explore a bid too.

If Preston doesn’t get a its act together quickly, then it will be a new Greater Manchester rival it will be worrying about rather than the region’s two established cities.

Frank McKenna, chairman, Downtown Preston in Business