Review: Paint Your Town Red by Matthew Brown and Rhian Jones

Autumn 2021 #35
written by
Dan Gregory
illustration by
Repeater Books, 2021

Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too by Matthew Brown and Rhian Jones is the book of the blockbusting Community Wealth Building (CWB) idea, which first premiered in Preston, Lancashire. CWB is one of several competing ‘policy brands’, including the ubiquitous Build Back Better idea, the infamous Big Society, the rather vacuous Levelling Up and numerous others. 

CWB is positioned here as a “local economic development strategy” and much of the idea is about democratic collective ownership of local economies. Of course, while these are great ideas, they aren’t new. Worker co-ops and community finance, for instance, have long-standing roots and connections beyond Preston – in Wales and the Basque country, the Lucas Plan and Rojava, among countless other places and times. As the book says, this is about “alternative models of public spending, business ownership, and provision of basic services”. 

There is some great stuff in here – the key elements of CWB, a range of actions and tools, such as unionising in traditionally non-unionised sectors, and it reminds us of the power of the living wage. There are useful explanations, links, and resources from community energy to rural broadband and from insourcing to credit unions. Of course these are all valuable innovations which existed before anyone invented the Community Wealth Building brand

But there are also big problems here, with the idea and the book. First, the authors do almost nothing to assess the alluring idea of CWB against the reality of what it’s achieved. Words such as totemic, comprehensive, and transformative are sprinkled throughout, alongside claims that the model’s “success shows that these ideas can work in practice” and “one of the obvious strengths is that it is already producing results.” Yet no evidence is put forward. In one half-hearted attempt, the authors describe how “impact was shown in 2018 when Preston Labour Party pledged to create a regional co- operative bank”. This is not impact, just more promise. Another claim is that the model has seen Preston achieve its highest employment rate for over 15 years. Yet in the UK more widely, while these jobs may be dangerously precarious and badly paid, employment rose in the UK from 72% in 2005 to 76% at the start of 2020. 

Elsewhere, the book points to the creation of four new local co-ops. A quick search tells us that, of these, one is yet to file any accounts; one turned over £7K in their last reporting year; another employs no staff and doesn’t seem to be a co-op anyway; and the other has seven staff and only started trading last year. For context, the Channel Islands Co-operative last year announced a trading profit of £7.2M and an overall turnover of £185M. Yet no-one is talking about the “Guernsey Model”. 

As the book acknowledges, “the kind of media attention applied to Preston often inevitably overlooks the long-term nature of the processes involved and the amount of unsensational work being done at a mundane and everyday level”. This is profound and true, while the hyperbole on the front cover that this idea is “everything we need right now” is not. 

The second problem is that while many of the ideas behind the brand are part of a wider movement, one element is troubling. It’s also the part that does seem to have been delivered. At the heart of the Preston Model is “shifting spending and investment from external suppliers to local producers and business”. From 2013 to 2017, public spending went from £38M to £111M in Preston and £292M to £486M in Lancashire. This clearly has happened – school lunches, legal services, and construction have all gone local. 

The book calls this “progressive procurement”. But is it progressive? Of course, many of us feel that public funds should give greater regard to social, ethical, and environmental considerations. But does local mean good? Is it morally better to go shopping in Preston than in Rochdale? What happens as the model is replicated in places like Bath and leafy London boroughs? Keeping wealth from leaking out of a poor place is one thing. In a rich place, it’s quite another. This whiff of protectionism needs further interrogation.

This is a missed opportunity to rebuff the protectionist critique. So while the authors insist elsewhere that “localism must also be internationalist” by “building solidarity across communities”, there is nothing here on how these two perspectives may be reconciled. 

These two flaws undermine what is great about the book. If the long traditions of co-operativism and the social economy are included under a CWB flag, then they risk being dismissed as part-protectionist, part-fantasy. 

As the book itself admits, CWB is not about tackling underlying structural problems beyond the city walls. Meanwhile we are also left none the wiser about what the model has done for Preston itself.

Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too is published by Repeater Books, 2021.

Dan Gregory is a researcher and policy adviser who works mostly in the field of civil society, co-operatives and social enterprise. He spends some of his time supporting Social Enterprise UK and also working independently under the banner of Common Capital.

Autumn 2021 #35

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