Matthew Brown has been called a visionary thinker for his work boosting the local economy in his hometown of Preston. Brown worked with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies and six so-called anchor institutions in the city. Together they looked at ways to stop 61 per cent of spending on goods and services from leaving the city. Brown and his colleagues see the changes as the beginning of a new system of organising spending in cities.
What do you do?
I’m cabinet member for social justice, inclusion and policy on Preston City Council. My job is to look at how to promote social justice especially after the terrible recession and austerity we had in the last decade and see how we can create a new system locally to change that. I represent Tulketh to the north west of Preston. In my day job I’m an administrator for HMRC. I spend a lot of my time there being a trades union officer for the Public and Commercial Services Union and an equal opportunities officer for my branch.
— Hazel Sheffield (@hazelsheffield) February 8, 2017
What are you trying to achieve in Preston?
The inspiration came from Ted Howard in Cleveland, Ohio and what they had done with the university and hospital to get them to change their contracts so that they spent more in the local economy. In Preston, we managed to get six local institutions on board initially and since then we have got 12. We managed to shift quite a few contracts back to the local economy, so that these so-called “anchor institutions” spent more money with local businesses. At Preston Council we have doubled the spend from 14 per cent to 28 per cent to firms within our district authority boundary. The amount of money in procurement is huge. A lot of it is stuck in national agreements that we can’t influence but say we shifted 10 or 15 per cent to the local economy in Lancashire, you’d be talking around £1bn more for the local economy over a 10 year period.
You can create healthy economies where there is democracy and where the people producing the wealth share it.
When was the moment you decided to do this?
I’ve always been on the left wing of the Labour Party. What has inspired me was areas within region or towns where they had found alternatives to corporate capitalism. In Mondragon in Spain there are hundreds of co-operative businesses, a bank, they make car parts, research, and a welfare system which enhances what the state provides. You look at that and you see that you can create healthy economies where there is democracy and where the people producing the wealth share it.
How do you fit it in?
I just work very hard. I’m the kind of person who gets bored a little easily so this keeps me inspired and happy to work. It’s a labour of love, the really good thing is when you start seeing results, those figures around the living wage and the multiple deprivation index, or when Preston was named the best city to live and work in north-west England. I can’t say it’s all us for sure but I think we can say what we are doing is definitely having a positive impact.
What’s been your proudest moment so far?
The biggest achievement is engaging those public sector institutions with procurement strategies to get them to think about changing their supply chains to spend more with local businesses. It sounds radical but it’s very common sense. These ideas, it’s not just the left who like them but all sides of the political spectrum because it make people more self reliant.
What’s been the hardest moment?
Getting the message out there that it’s happening. It’s not always something obvious. If you say there’s a new development people can see it, but this is about wealth that’s already in our communities and it’s being moved from outside the community to inside the community. When everyone’s having their budgets cut it’s hard to ask them to change their habits. That’s why we’re working with Centre for Local Economic Strategies.
What keeps you going when things get hard?
I’ve always had a strong sense of right and wrong. Certain losses I felt when I was younger makes me want to make sure people are protected, that’s what drives me in some ways. That feeling like I didn’t fit in or was left outside makes me want to make sure other people don’t feel that way.
How did you vote in the EU referendum and why?
I voted to remain. It was a balanced decision for me because I thought we’d lose a lot more from leaving than staying in.
If you look at the history of community wealth building it’s motivated by system change. In the US it’s motivated by disinvestment in communities with people seeing an economy that doesn’t work for them at all. Voting to leave was an expression of anger that the economy is not working for people nationally. What we are doing with wealth building is about what comes after that. It fits into the post-capitalist way of thinking. It’s quite a radical idea if it’s brought to scale and can create a virtuous economy.
Wealth building is not linked to Brexit, but Brexit has happened because of a failure of the current economic model. What we’re doing now is in response to that, it’s about how we can change local economies to work for people that feel they have been left behind.
How will the outcome affect what you do?
We’ve got until 2019 under the current EU regulations so in that time we can get a lot done. There’s an argument that EU regulation makes things more difficult. So it could become easier to do the stuff around procurement or it could get more difficult, especially if a big trade deal comes along where it’s easier for big companies to get contracts over smaller enterprises. We’ll have to see.
What does community mean to you?
Community is everyone trying to come together for a common good. Inequality means it’s harder for some parts of the community than others. You can have initiatives to protect the disabled or minorities but if there is rising inequality people start to blame other people. So if you have a more equal society and the wealth is spread around, those tensions disappear a bit. The living wage is a good example of this. The living wage is really a women’s issue and a minorities issue. It affects those groups more as they are more often underpaid.
What’s the next step?
We’ve got a new credit union and new cooperative businesses consisting of educational psychologists and an artists coop in one of our council buildings. We’re looking to get social enterprises and charities to change their status to co-operatives to potentially bid for contracts from our anchor institutions initially involving food. Through our city deal we got our public sector pension fund to invest in the city economy and we have students flats being built and a hotel that’s going to be refurbished. We’re looking at the potential for a community bank in Lancashire, based on the German not-for-profit model, and the potential for Preston Council to supply energy, like Nottingham council already do.
What would you say to someone looking to do something similar?
One of the things we want to do is produce a toolkit with CLES to help people to know what to do when they are starting out. I hope that by starting this movement, more people do it and it can start building itself nationally.