Opinion: Preston had the UK’s first KFC but can it find the secret sauce for innovation

Posted on - 22nd April, 2024 - 9:00am | Author - | Posted in - Business, Opinion, Preston City Centre, Preston News
Sign on the side of Society1 co-working in Preston city centre Pic: Society1

All the ingredients are there for Preston to become an innovation powerhouse – is the indication from new research.

The city has a long and rich heritage of coming up with new ideas and ways of doing things and for being a test bed for experimentation too.

From the Temperance movement, to the industrial revolution with Arkwright, women’s football with the Dick, Kerr Ladies and KFC basing their first ever UK outlet here in Fishergate in 1965 – Preston’s often been a frontrunner.

Read more: 16 excellent things Preston gave the world

Last week the latest Preston Partnership meeting heard about what more could be done to stimulate innovation in the city.

It centred a lot on the potential boost the city may see from the National Cyber Force building a £5bn centre at Samlesbury (leaving aside it’s not actually in Preston) with around 2,000 staff set to be re-located and located there and be running at full tilt by 2030.

There was a call to those in the room that this would wash through into Preston, in a ‘GCHQ’ style way as has happened in Cheltenham. And while there definitely will be an increase in very secretive-types shuffling there way up the M6 they will still need to shop, eat, drink and have their wheels repaired for pothole damage like the rest of us.

Away from the potential cyber-security boom there were two very notable things the panel – which included innovation types from Manchester, the county council, UCLan and researchers Plexal, touched upon.

The panel debate on innovation, with Yoda attending on behalf of the Cyber Security Force (apparently) Pic: Cotton Court Business Centre

The first is that Preston has a very solid base when it comes to small and medium-sized companies, the average trading length is 14 years and for digital businesses it is a decade. The city does have an established community and stock of people who know how to take an idea and then formulate a business around it.

There was a lot of talk about ‘scaling-up’ and this grand notion of suddenly a three-person business needing space for 50 or more staff. In reality, most innovation and expansion happens incrementally – especially for smaller operations.

Across the city there’s already organisations, venues and people working to help innovation to happen and new ideas to emerge – from co-working spaces like Society1 (disclosure: Blog Preston has its registered office there and uses the space), there’s an innovation offering and hub at UCLan although it is definitely not in the pomp it once was due to financial pressures at the university and (perhaps rightly) a focus on teaching and expansion of teaching facilities. And there’s OneCoWork due to open, Wrkspace have spaces across the city, the Amounderness House work getting going – so the city is not short of the spaces to put into the magic business growth potion even if they don’t have anti-listening devices that cyber-security types might insist on.

Read more: Opinion: 2024 marks a foundational year for Preston city centre’s redevelopment

Suddenly spending millions of pounds on a potential white elephant ‘innovation hub’ building is not necessarily the answer or getting co-working, the lack of Grade A office space and innovation muddled up, instead – as Maya Ellis from LCC and Holly Smith from Plexal alluded to, it’s having the right signposting and people making connections and bringing together all these elements to ensure what already exists in and for the city is being well-utilised.

What counts as business support for innovation for a two-person tech start-up in the city centre will be different to a coffee shop trying to expand through to a manufacturing venture on the Red Scar estate that actually never does any business in Preston. The city has always, and will always, have a variety of businesses within it – due to its location and scale – so not becoming overly reliant on cyber-security, or engineering, or any other sector is part of the city’s strength and resilience.

Part of the challenge – and the second point which was made very eloquently by Dave Carter who was heavily involved in the regeneration of Manchester in the 1990s and early 2000s, is there needs to be investment in things which have nothing to do with actual business. Schools, healthcare, arts and culture in particular – people spend a portion of their week at work but they need other outlets and facilities for the rest of the time.

This is the sticking point for Preston, because the local authority set up means it has limited clout and resources to make things happen. So there needs to be the collaboration between Town and County to really double-down on Preston and give it the shot in the financial arm that’s needed to make some major shifts happen. You’ll always get more bang for your buck with driving innovation in Preston and the surroundings than you will in Barnoldswick.

Preston has the heritage, the stable base layer of businesses and the right ingredients to create something special when it comes to innovation.

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