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Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown on Guild Hall, Preston Model, public scrutiny and more

Posted on - 17th March, 2024 - 8:00am | Author - | Posted in - Business, Politics, Preston Council, Preston Guild Hall, Preston News, Redevelopment
Cllr Brown at the Guild Hall
Cllr Matthew Brown Leader of Preston City Council at the Guild Hall Preston – pictured in 2023 inside the venue

The leader of Preston City Council has been quizzed on some of the issues closest to the hearts of Prestonians.

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Blog Preston sat down with Matthew Brown to talk about Preston Guild Hall, various developments across the city – some of which have encountered setbacks -, devolution, the conflict in Gaza and other points.

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Subscribers to the Blog Preston newsletter were offered the opportunity to submit questions to Cllr Brown, in addition to our own, ahead of our interview.

Read more: Preston and South Ribble unimpressed with ‘lukewarm’ devolution deal

Matthew Brown is the Labour leader of Preston City Council but also an elected member of Lancashire County Council.

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The focus for much of the conversation was around various developments happening across the city. We covered Ashton Park, the new Tram Bridge designs, the Animate project, the management of Avenham Park café and much more besides.

Throughout this interview, we have linked to previous Blog Preston reporting that could be useful in terms of providing context around specific issues and their backgrounds.

Was partnering with Signature Living, and Lawrence Kenwright, for the Post Office building a mistake? 

That decision was taken under the previous leader, the late Peter Rankin. Obviously I was in the cabinet but he had the lead for economic development at the time. My own view is we need to be doing a lot more ourselves as an authority, which you see now. And that building had been a disused asset for some time and it did seem like a reasonable opportunity. 

I think now we’re actually learning that when business people promise us the world, sometimes it’s not as good as it says on the tin. And I just want your readers to know that the way we do it now is very different. A lot of the regeneration – for cinemas, Harris Museum, building workspaces for local businesses, supporting independent charities like the Youth Zone – it’s very much about the city council more directly providing opportunities, jobs and doing things. It’s really tough out there for people but we’re really trying to do things differently. 

Work has stalled on the renovation of the Old Post Office to become a luxury hotel Pic: Tony Worrall
Work has stalled on the renovation of the Old Post Office to become a luxury hotel Pic: Tony Worrall

Is there anything positive we can tell people about The Post Office development? 

I haven’t had an update for some time. What I do know is, the majority has actually been completed but because of this issue around Signature Living, getting investment to finish it off has been challenging. But I do know there were discussions with other investors about whether it can be taken forward. We’re just as disappointed as everyone else. We’d have done it ourselves but we didn’t have the money to do that in addition to everything else. 

You’d think that would be an attractive prospect for someone if most of the work has been completed?

Yeah and that seems to be the case. I don’t know all the ins-and-outs with this but it probably isn’t seen as viable in the way that it was originally seen to be. And this is the issue with it in terms of getting investment. 

Was it an error to work with Simon Rigby to operate Preston Guild Hall

The decision to outsource the management of Preston Guild Hall was taken in 2014. Myself and other cabinet members were privately uneasy. But we faced a situation where we had huge cuts, life-changing cuts. Those cuts by the Conservative government were imposed on diverse working class communities like Preston rather than the more prosperous, leafy parts of the country, often down in the south. So going with a locally-based business seemed to be the best thing to do if we couldn’t afford to run it ourselves.

In hindsight, the reputational damage to the city council is pretty serious and we want to avoid that in future. In terms of the fact that it didn’t go right and obviously it resulted in legal action and the rest of it. 

Preston Guild Hall in Lancaster Road Pic: Blog Preston
Preston Guild Hall in Lancaster Road Pic: Blog Preston

Do you or the council have a view on its viability as a venue? 

It was losing money, we do know that. We are hoping to open the Guild Hall foyer, which we can run ourselves or with another public sector partner or even involve other entertainment venues. 

Ideally I’d like to run it back in house, but we’re going to need a lot more money to do that. One option we do have is whether we can attract Arts Council funding because venues generally make a loss and venues of that era make a bigger loss. 

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We really do care, within this Labour council, we do want to get that back as soon as we can. We just can’t do everything all at once and some of the constraints that are put in by central government make that really difficult. We want to bring the venue back as soon as we can. And then we’ll see how we can deal with the rest of it. 

I’ve been to 53 Degrees, I’ve been to the Ferret, I’ve been to the Continental and I’ve been to the Guild Hall for concerts. 15-20 years ago, people were coming to all of them. So I think there is an appetite for it. We’ve got a much larger student population now than we did back then. We’ve just got to get things all working together. 

One thing we did do is support The Ferret. The situation was the landlord wanted to sell the assets. So the fact they didn’t own the building was a real problem. 

I think there’s a bigger conversation to be had with 53 Degrees and the Students’ Union to do something across the board and that’s being looked at. We’ve got the mobile events tent. The Harris is going to reopen and when you combine all of that it’s quite exciting to me. 

You look at the cinema industry and you see an industry that’s struggling. So why is Animate going to work? 

We’ve had studies done about whether it would or wouldn’t be commercially successful. I think the people of Preston need some kind of culture, entertainment and food offer in the city centre. It needs to be made modern.

It’s very much linked to the markets because it’s an independent cinema operator but the largest number of businesses will be the smaller ones. We’re expecting about 10-12 independent businesses in the street food hub which will be linked with the market. So we expect local businesses to feature extensively, if not entirely. 

I think the fact we’re actually owning the thing is really important. There’s 340 people working on it and there’s targets to make sure a certain number of them are from the local area. It matters to them that we’re doing this. 

Work on the Animate cinema complex in Preston city centre Pic: Blog Preston
Work on the Animate cinema complex in Preston city centre Pic: Blog Preston

I think we have to look at trends and people are buying things online a lot more. The reality is that the kind of economy we want to see, as well as it being fairer and more equal, what we need is a place for creativity and expression.

If you go somewhere like York or Bristol, they’re really quirky and people are expressing themselves and enjoying themselves. We need to move towards that and this is a big part of doing it. 

I know it’s painful, years of redevelopment and traffic and so on.

Animate, an independent cinema, engaging with the community – having that and more events and hopefully the Guild Hall back will be very positive. 

Can you tell me anything about the event on Moor Park in September? 

….What event? (editor’s note: he knew the event)

What’s your view on the running of Avenham Park café, which comes in for regular criticism, and is operated by the council? 

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I think it’s a distraction from much bigger issues. The Lib Dems always raise this. We’ve had independent operators run it before and for whatever reason they went out of business, obviously, one in very tragic circumstances.

What we’re intending to do is continue to operate it and make sure it does a lot of new things. So we’re looking at how the facility can put on conferences, events and weddings and make it a bit more profitable that way. 

We don’t want to be privatising and outsourcing staff. You’ve got young people there who get £12 an hour. We’re a really deprived community here and we need people who do work for us to be treated well. 

If somebody with impressive hospitality credentials came in and was interested, is that something you’d look at? 

Potentially yes, but  we’re keen to do a lot more directly ourselves. We’re not dogmatic in that respect. We want to stand behind it, make it work and give it time to become successful. And then if there are any issues, if it’s not successful, which we expect it will be in the longer term, then we’ll look at it again. But once we’ve made a commitment, it’s something we want to stick to. 

Do you have a view on the idea of a unitary authority taking in Preston, South Ribble and Chorley?

My view is that I think it’s a good idea. I’d like to see a larger council, but not necessarily hugely larger. Maybe around 250,000 like you might see with some Greater Manchester authorities. I’ve been making that argument for when we get a change of government. I also think we need an elected mayor – a mayor of Lancashire – someone who can be the Andy Burnham of Lancashire.

The devolution deal the Conservatives led on is absolutely atrocious in terms of offering very little and actually taking more away. I do think the two-tier system doesn’t make a lot of sense but obviously I don’t want to lose democracy. Because if we get rid of the county and district councillors and then have a super council then it ends up looking more like regional government than local government. 

Would you stand for mayor if that did transpire? 

At this stage, no. 

Why?

I’ve got a job to finish off in Preston as leader. It’s not the most celebrated job in the region, being leader of a district council, but in terms of what we’re doing with our economic model and the progress we’re making, I think we’re hitting a tipping point. 

You touched on devolution earlier – but what’s your stance on the deal that’s been agreed?

I think it’s a huge missed opportunity. It’s underwhelming. I can understand residents have been totally disinterested in it in Preston and Lancashire. Compared to Greater Manchester and Merseyside, some of the things they’re doing like running their own buses, trains and even owning their trains. It’s quite embarrassing that we’ve got this deal that is so underwhelming. 

And it’s even more frustrating that ourselves, who are closest to the people in terms of the size of our council and our community engagement, don’t even have a direct voice on it. 

And to get the best funding and the best deals and the best powers, you do actually need a mayor. 

County Hall in Preston. Pic: Blog Preston
County Hall in Preston. Pic: Blog Preston

Do you feel county hall impedes Preston’s progress? 

They’re very disappointing. Obviously we have to work with them as closely as possible, and there are some things that we’ve managed to secure for them in terms of funding. Some of the things we’ve had to deal with, in terms of the Tram Bridge, where – yes, they have made a small contribution but we’ve actually put in the lion’s share and had to bid for it as part of our levelling-up funding – that’s something they could’ve taken on and they’ve not done it. 

The Youth Zone was a county project traditionally supported by the county. It’s now 10-15 years old, we’re doing it because we think it’s a good thing. 

Lancashire 2025 – did we have to pull out of that? Even Geoff Driver was backing it. We got involved in that and continued the bid. 

But also things like selling off travellers sites when it’s going to save them very little money, and the chaos that causes really proud communities. 

Is it challenging to offer strong opinions like that given you are elected for both Preston City and Lancashire County Council?

I’ve got to the point where I need to say it like it is because I think what people want is a bit of honesty from politicians. 

Why does Preston have one of the highest tax burdens in Lancashire?

I think that’s a little unfair as a question because the only levers that we’re given by the government is council tax – which in my view should be replaced with something more fair. 

For us to look after the most vulnerable, we have to put it up to avoid services and support from collapsing, to make sure people can access food and to keep things like that going, we need to raise council tax. 

And you’ve got to remember, our share is only about 17% so you might want to ask the Conservatives why they put it up the maximum as well.

But they’re facing huge cuts as well from a centralised Conservative government that doesn’t fund them properly. 

The Ashton Park decision was taken in private and then only one design was put before the public for the new Tram Bridge. Does this council have an issue with public scrutiny? 

No. I think a lot of it is, we have to work within government envelopes. The levelling up scheme, for example, things have to be done that quickly. You’ve got to make decisions quickly in terms of bidding for things and then delivering things. 

My own view is, it’s very much based around the general election, when it comes. 

I understand there’s been very strong views with Ashton Park and before that with the Tram Bridge. We’re not trying to subvert democracy. We’re just trying to work within the constraints we have. 

Protest outside Ashton Park on Feb 29
Protest outside Ashton Park on Feb 29

How do you feel about the ideological differences between Preston Labour and Labour at a national level? 

There were democratic elections for leaders decided in 2020. We need a Labour government soon. I choose to focus on the positive things that will be done like a new deal for workers, Great British Energy and the nationalisation of railways. I think all of these are good things and I’m concentrating on that. 

I was at the People’s Powerhouse convention where you spoke in November and there was a big point about people who live in Preston not actually knowing what the Preston Model is even if it’s had national and global attention. What’s the remedy to that?

I think it’s trying to do things differently and trying to make sure that we can genuinely take back control in our Preston economy a lot more. 

We will, where possible, use Preston businesses and encourage our partners to do so. We’ll encourage a real living wage. We’ll require our partners to use local people a lot more and we’ll try to provide affordable homes. 

We’ve got businesses, like the Mandala Centre, which have become owned by the workers and so that’s 10 or 15 women that are guaranteed a wage of £17 per hour. 

We’ve got a co-operative in Brookfield that’s going to be retrofitted. We’ve got a co-operative energy scheme that will put solar panels on buildings. 

What you’re seeing round here is not corporate-led development, it’s £120m of the council actively getting in the market and doing things and creating jobs and making things happen.

You might be too young to remember the Tithebarn development (editor’s note: if only), that would have been a disaster for Preston. We would’ve seen wealth extractment and we’d have had a significant retail development and retail is going out of fashion. 

What’s in the pot for the next Preston Guild celebrations?

We’re looking to make a provision within our budget for that. Deputy leader Martyn Rawlinson is basically going to make sure that over the next few years we will actually get to a situation where we’ll be fully-funded. Last time we put in around £2 million, and we’re looking to put in a similar amount for 2032. We’ll also look to attract other funding, from the government, business sponsorship and the rest of it.

We’re very confident it will be as good as, if not better, than the last one. But we do need to prepare now. 

How do you approach dealing with an issue as complex and sensitive as the conflict in Gaza?

We have to listen and be as fair to all our communities as possible. But we also need to say things we believe are morally right. We’ve been trying to find a balance in that. 

Some communities haven’t liked what we’ve said. Other communities think we should say more. It’s really tricky but we have a very diverse community in Preston and everyone gets on pretty well.

When we get into strong feelings around international conflict, that’s where you get a lot of intensity. 

We were one of the first councils to have an extraordinary meeting to call for an immediate ceasefire. All parties are behind that now. 

What is happening there is horrific and we do need to point out the injustices but, we are in many ways limited by what we can actually do.

Given those limitations, why is it so important that Preston does make its voice heard on issues like this? 

We’ve always done that. We’re quite an ethical council and we’ve highlighted human rights issues elsewhere. We do have diverse communities and we do need to say when something is wrong.

We need a ceasefire and a diplomatic solution and I hope that happens.

But regardless of how strongly people feel about things, that should never descend into anti-semitism, islamophobia or any other kinds of racism. 

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