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Paint Your Town Red

Review of Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control And Your Town Can Too.

Authors: Matthew Brown and Rhian E Jones

Reviewed by: David Towell

It is widely argued that, as mostly richer countries make progress in containing the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to give urgent attention to Building Back Better. However the critical word here is Better. The pandemic has served to highlight and indeed magnify chronic problems of climate change, inequality and an economic model (neo-liberalism) that is taking us in the wrong direction on both these priorities. It has also shown us the need to take back control from the global forces that profit from this model in order to build collective support for something better. 

Paint Your Town Red is a democratic socialist tract for addressing these challenges at the local level and a detailed account of how one Northern English city, Preston, is doing just that. Mathew Brown is the Labour leader of Preston City Council; his co-author is the editor of the magazine Red Pepper.

Just to be clear, this is a work of advocacy: nothing wrong with that. The authors want to encourage us - and one of them is leader of the council. The book could have told us more about the constraints on effective local action that challenges the neo-liberal model. And it could have told us more about what hasn't worked so well, so we could learn from this. But, being positive, it says a lot that is encouraging.

Preston is like many British towns, especially those a long way from the capital city, London. It has witnessed more than forty years of industrial decline as the national economy has transformed from its founding strengths, a decline accelerated by the years of austerity that followed the 2008 financial crash. Elected leaders over the last decade have set out to reverse these trends within what it is possible to do locally. Their core idea is simple: the people of Preston should use local democratic institutions and widespread participation to take back control of local resources and use them to enhance local well-being.

The practice is more challenging. An important launch pad for radical change was the council's efforts to build strategic alliances with other local 'anchor institutions' (typically large organisations with a commitment to Preston and a significant economic impact as employers and spenders) to redirect economic development towards community wealth building. These were largely public bodies including the council itself, local educational institutions (e.g. the University of Central Lancashire), the local NHS, the local Police Force and others. Between them these organisations spend about £750 million annually as purchasers of goods and services. What could they do for Preston and its people if they spent more of this in Preston. What could they do if they introduced environmental (e.g. reducing the carbon footprint) and social (e.g. favouring 'Living Wage' employers) goals, alongside efficiency ones in all their procurement?

As momentum built in this approach, the strategy became more expansive. 

  • Could the Council, trade unions and others make better use of their pension funds to strengthen local investment? 
  • Where there were gaps in local provision, could they cultivate worker-owned cooperatives both to fill these gaps and improve employment opportunities?
  • Could they encourage credit unions and community banking initiatives to replace declining services from the global banks and promote the local economy?
  • Could they make better use of land and other fixed assets to advance social goals, including better housing? 
  • Could they mobilise local resources to invest in renewable energy? 
  • And in all this, could they foster stronger community participation so that many more local people gained more control over their own futures?

Yes they could: clearly it's a work in progress but this is the Preston story in 2021. 

As well as telling this story in some detail, Brown and Jones trace the long history of ideas like these in the UK and internationally. They also offer a 'How To...' guide to doing all this in other places, listing useful examples and further sources of information and advice.

Starting locally, a better world is possible. Now is the time to act!


The publisher is Repeater.

Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control And Your Town Can Too © Matthew Brown & Rhian E Jones 2021.

Review: Paint Your Town Red © David Towell 2021.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

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