As Preston prepares to go to the polls on Thursday (4 May) for the local elections then the city’s big issues were debated by party leaders.Advertisement
The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) put the leaders of the main parties in Preston head-to-head to work through their thoughts on the future of the Guild Hall, the city’s regeneration plan and much more.
To be invited to take part, a party had to be contesting at least a third of the seats up for grabs at the polls. This year, Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are standing candidates in all wards, with the Green Party and the Alliance for Democracy and Freedom fielding representatives in one each – and you can find manifestos from all of the political groups here.
Read more: See full list of Preston local election candidates
However, for the debate, Cllr Matthew Brown (Labour leader of Preston City Council), Cllr Sue Whittam (Conservative opposition group leader) and Cllr John Potter (Liberal Democrat group leader) went head-to-head in a three-way.
Watch the video in full or read the highlights below of what they had to say on the topics that came up for discussion:
Work on Preston’s flagship “Animate” cinema and leisure complex is now well under way. But with a price tag of £45m – £28m of which is being funded by borrowing – is its success guaranteed or a gamble? And with several national restaurant chains and Hollywood Bowl already signed up, will the development really make Preston a distinctive destination?
Matthew Brown: “We have [specialist finance] officers [who] really go through all the books and make sure that the council finances will be sustainable. We need to be quite resilient as a community in Preston. We’ve moved on from solely depending on corporate developers and [are] actually regenerating the city collectively, in our ownership, so we can use local people and local suppliers. I’m confident [Animate is] going to work. We’re confident that we’ll get all the tenants in it within the next few months – and we think it’s a fantastic asset.
“We can have a big say [over] the…[operators] within it, [but] obviously, for it to be sustainable and get the return as needed…we do need some national restaurants. It’s not like it’s retail. There will be a number of independent businesses in the street food hub…[which], crucially…will be very much linked to our markets. So it is, I think, quite distinctive.
“Put that together with the youth zone, [the forthcoming new office space in] Amounderness House, the regeneration of The Harris – [and] with the return of Preston Guild Hall – we really believe that we’re…regenerating our city from the grassroots upwards.”
Sue Whittam: “I think we all agree that it’s really important that we regenerate the city centre, because we do need to have that vibrant economy [there]. I think the independent shops and the shopping area absolutely needs to be at the fore. Animate? Yes, but I’ve always had reservations about a cinema – we’re going to see what happens with that…because people don’t tend to go to the cinema as much as they used to do. It’s a lot of money that the city is borrowing for this scheme. The good thing is that our government have put money into the city centre, so they’re convinced that it’s worth fighting…to improve i
“But…we weren’t expecting the Guild Hall to be back in our ownership – and that adds another ball to juggle. There seem to be a lot of projects going on – and we really need to finish one of them before we can move on to the next. I’d [also] like to see youth zone satellite [facilities] in other areas of Preston, not just the city centre.”
John Potter: “There is a risk [with Animate] and it’s a substantial amount of debt… that the council [is] taking on to be able to do this. But the bigger risk was to do nothing and to let our city centre go further downwards [and that] was just not something any of us could accept. The private sector wasn’t going to do it on its own – and this is actually an example of the private and public sector working together to hopefully regenerate a part of the city. It’s a bit like starting the domino effect of actually getting regeneration – we knew we had to get it started as a local authority and that’s what all three of us voted for. If we don’t start [regenerating] this area, then all the other areas of the city won’t follow.
Read more: Cafe bar chain Loungers coming to Preston’s Animate leisure complex
As the Local Democracy Reporting Service revealed earlier this year, the end of a legal wrangle over the circumstances in which Preston City Council retook control of the Guild Hall from late businessman Simon Rigby in 2019 – five years after transferring it to his company for £1 and 12 months before his death — has paved the way for the venue to reopen after a four-year hiatus. But the authority will first have to decide how it should be run to avoid the pitfalls of the past. And do the people of Preston not deserve to know how much it cost the council to settle with the Guild Hall subsidiaries which brought the case against the town hall?
John Potter: “We just need to find the right people to run it …[because] the council doesn’t have the experience or the ability to run a venue [like that] and get it to a profitable level. Behind the scenes – which we can’t talk about publicly yet – we are in negotiation with top-level companies that do this for a living. The Guild Hall has only maybe got 30-40 years left in it, before the building will be at a point where it can’t continue. So let’s get a good operator involved [and] give it a brilliant final hurrah. And…city centres [in future] will be places where people do stuff, not just where people buy things, [so] having a cultural centre in the Guild Hall [is] really important to that.
“I’m sure that the people of Preston would love to know [the terms of the settlement], but the legal…ruling restrict[s] us from saying anything. There were loads of things that me, Matthew and Sue would love to make public, because some things that are said we [would like] to actually throw back and say: ‘Actually, this is the truth of what happened.’ There are things that we know behind the scenes, which would really put a new light on this – but we can’t [reveal them]. We needed to draw a line under the last few years.”
Matthew Brown: “We…[will] look at all options – we’re not ruling anything out. My own view is that we’ve got to explore [public ownership], but the reality is, it was losing nearly a million pounds [a year when the council operated it]. We’re going to have a number of experts looking at all the options and obviously making sure…the model, whatever that’s going to be, is in line with our values. What we’re definitely not going to do is what we did previously and hand a 1000-year lease to an individual businessman. But we do need to obviously re-engage with artists…and promoters. It can’t be rushed, but it needs to be [done] relatively quickly because it’s been out of circulation for too long.
“I would like to be as transparent as I can be [about the legal action] , but it’s more complex than people think [when dealing with] legal negotiations and settlements.”
Sue Whittam: “What we’d all love to see is a pantomime in the Guild Hall at Christmas this year. But …there’s quite a problem with [things] like the furniture and everything else in the Guild Hall – it all needs refurbishing and it needs things done to it, because it can’t be just kept as it is currently – and obviously it’s been out of use for a [few] years.
“It’s been a long and uncomfortable road, but we can’t say anything about it. But it is good news that we’ve got the Guild Hall back. I’d like to see [us] look at [it] being a registered charity or something along those lines. We do need the Guild Hall – I do recognise everybody feels the same, that it is so important to Preston.”
Read more: ‘Elephant in the room can move on’ – reaction to Guild Hall future
Preston is actively pursuing a policy of encouraging more people to live in the city centre – but will the developments being granted permission be out of reach for many Prestonians? Some plans have been given the green light in spite of not including any properties that fall into the affordable homes category, after developers argued that to do so would render their proposals unviable. And is the city in danger of reaching saturation point given the number of new apartment blocks set to spring up – and so being left with some unsold white elephants?
Sue Whittam: “I’m not against city centre living – I think you really need a balance and a mix of all different things in the city centre – and having masterplans [for] Stoneygate [and] the station quarter is a great way…of mak[ing] sure we get the right things in the right place. But what we’ve got with Preston..[is] a number of developers coming forward…who were throwing everything into student accommodation [and have] now decided [they will] go into city centre living. – and a lot of it isn’t viable. That’s been raised at planning committee again and again [when applications are being decided], but viability isn’t a reason to turn down a planning application. If a developer comes and says they can do it, I hope they do do it – but we know a number of times, it doesn’t happen.
“My concern is not just about city centre living, [but] looking at planning as a whole, in the centre of Preston, we have very old office stock. And that’s why it’s important we get some new office buildings built to attract people to come and work in Preston.”
John Potter: “I have to be a little bit careful, because I’m actually [a member of the] planning committee, so I don’t want to prejudice myself for future decisions. Every application is looked [at on] its merits – and that’s the way it has to be with planning. But we can’t escape the fact we do need to have more people living in the city centre – it’s important for the economy, it’s important for the city to grow…because all the other things we want to do [are] dependant on Preston…[being] a vibrant city and part of that is city living. Whether things become white elephants…that’s a massive ‘if’ and we can’t really say either way at this point.”
Matthew Brown: “The uncomfortability of it is probably around the fact that…the planning policy frameworks that we operate within [mean] developers could actually get out of providing affordable housing. It’s really unfair – it’s a Conservative government policy [and] it attacks local democracy and our opportunity to make choices. So, yes, it’s very frustrating that we have…[some]developments and not one single affordable house within [them]. We do have officers that negotiate very hard with all developers…to ensure we do get affordable housing [and] we’ve got a specialist that looks at the claims that there’s [a lack of] viability, which is often challenged.
“We’re working with registered providers to make sure that in that area, we’re going to get lots of new affordable and social housing…and also we will move forward with plans to start developing council housing again. it might be a small number – around 20 in the next two years – but we obviously want that to scale up and potentially look at how we can work with South Ribble and Chorley on that.”
Read more: First stage of Stoneygate redevelopment approved with Dryden Mill
Preston City Council will have to make £500,000 of savings this year – but also has to find £600,000 in each of the next three years, while its reserves are forecast to drop from £8.6m in 2023/24 to £1.3m by 2026/27. Should it have been more ruthless in making cuts in recent years?
Matthew Brown: “We have a principle that we’re not going to impose cuts on our communities as [far] as possible. We’re looking at things like…assets we don’t need, which we can sell, potentially…and other things we’re doing. We are doing it in a very pragmatic way and we do think we can manage it in the next few years.”
John Potter: “Local government is not sustainable. We’ve seen councils go to the wall – of various political colours – [so] there has to be a fundamental change [to council funding]. Otherwise, we’re just salami-slicing, a kind of managed decline – when actually councils…are the most efficient form of government. They have outstanding workers who do outstanding jobs throughout the year – look at what happened [at the height of] Covid.”
Sue Whittam: We need a long-term financial settlement from government for councils. But equally…there’s only been one redundancy [in 12 years] at Preston, because there’s so many vacancies – we don’t need to make redundancies, because…staff are moving on and not staying, so that needs to be addressed [as] our staff are a very precious asset.”
A replacement for the iconic structure will be built with Levelling Up Fund money awarded to Preston earlier this year – but should it be a replica of the current one, a traditionally-designed bridge or something totally radical?
Sue Whittam: “Something completely different, something really stand-out.”
Matthew Brown: “I’m generally radical, but in this instance, I’m going to say traditional.”
John Potter: “I’d say I have no idea. I look forward to seeing the designs and then making a judgement – because the people [designing it] will be architects and I’m not.”
Read more: See the latest Preston news and headlines