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Hopeful Stories of communities organizing

Stories on organizing raise questions of approach


Column by Cameron Conner

For the last 14 years, while many of England's policies slashed tax rates, gutted social systems and eroded corporate regulation, progressive local governments tacked to the center, except for one.

Nearly 10 years ago, the city of Preston embarked on a program of ultra-localism that sought to redirect wealth back into the local economy and place control into the hands of people. 

These policies kept hundreds of millions of pounds in the local economy, strengthened small businesses and improved the standard of living. PricewaterhouseCoopers named Preston the UK's "most improved city" in 2018.

Today the "Preston Model" has been used as a template by city officials from Cleveland to Sydney. It sparked an international movement for a people-centered approach to economic development, but sailing against the tide of national policy hasn't been easy for Preston, and they have faced challenges.

Since I applied for the Watson Fellowship, visiting Preston was at the top of my list. I spent four weeks there as my last stop in the UK.

Preston was a place to see where policy and organizing met.

My question was, in a community-focused economy, what is the role of community organizing in developing people who want to be and are capable of being at the table? 

I offer two stories from Preston. One showcases the potential for a community-focused economic development approach. The other is a cautionary tale about what happens when such an approach puts creating programs ahead of developing people.

Story 1: A new way of economic development began with the banking crash. In the early 2000s, the Preston City Council planned to build a massive shopping mall, the Tithebarn, replacing the city center of empty shops. Tithebarn was also to be the lifeline for the city with England's highest suicide rate.

When the 2008 recession reached Preston, cranes stopped, and businesses pulled out. By 2011, the plan was dead.

The crisis created an opportunity. A new council member, Matthew Brown of the liberal Labor Party, had an unusual idea.

He proposed paying people in Preston a fair living wage and putting the government's support behind local businesses to grow and reinvest in local people, not in outside businesses.

In 2012, Preston became the first living wage employer in Northern England. The council helped families sign up for community credit unions that invested savings locally. It began organizing other major area economic actors—a hospital, regional university, public housing association and the municipally owned Harris Museum.

These "anchor institutions" are tied to the community and unlikely to leave.

The team began working with them to increase local purchasing. As more institutions joined the alliance, local procurement in the county increased from 39 percent of funds spent in 2012 to 79.2 percent in 2017. An additional £200m stayed in the county.

The county's pension fund moved from the stock market to local investments, like building student accommodations.

In 2015, the county wanted healthier meals for school children and asked local businesses to make bite-size contracts with local suppliers and farmers, providing a £2m boost.

In the first months of COVID, 80 employees were to be laid off from a local manufacturing plant. The council asked the employer to repurpose the plant to make masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) that was purchased by the anchor institutions, especially the hospital. The company made money, people kept their jobs and the spread of the virus was slowed.

The economy in story 1 worked for the people. On the other hand, story 2 asks, "Where are the people?"

Matthew eventually realized the average resident of Preston had no clue about the Preston Model or the philosophy of community wealth building. He realized this was a problem for an economic idea that said it puts people first. The council succeeded in organizing anchor institutions to keep money local but struggled to engage local people and form co-ops.

While some new cooperatives started, there was resistance to co-ops.

Chris Davis, a community leader, launched co-ops out of the community center he co-founded. He and working-class neighbors had a co-op that improved the energy efficiency of local buildings and created new employment and skills for local people.

Local builders learned about retrofitting. They had a grant to retrofit in their own community center as a model. They trained folks in highly skilled, high-wage jobs.

Chris used the "if you build it, they will come" fallacy.

It involves well-meaning experts coming up with a program to address a community need only to find when everything is in place that nobody wants it. They created a program before they built a constituency.

A better axiom is: "if they come, you should build it." Start where people are. If there is energy, move forward together. One co-op development consultant turned the corner by asking, "What are the challenges in your community? Maybe a cooperative is a tool that you can use to fix it."

The Preston Model is not the answer.

Comparing Preston and Barcelona, which I reported on in an earlier column, both have the same goals: use corporate investment to strengthen the common good, enable people to have a larger say in politics and the economy and invest in what people actually need.

How they go about it differs.

In Barcelona, organizers asked neighbors, "What issues does your family face?" In Sants, it was childcare and fresh groceries. Organizers then asked, "Do you want to do something about it?" When people emerged, they presented the co-op as one tool. Now, there are more than 35 community-run co-ops in Sants.

In Preston, people learned the limits of their top-down approach. There is a growing interest in the slow, relational work of community organizing.

A community-focused economy is not possible without the political education and agency community organizing provides. Yet the Preston Model offers organizers a vision for new policies with potential dividends in local contexts.

The existence of that model speaks to one city's courage to do things differently.

Cameron Conner's columns for The Fig Tree are selected from blogs he is writing during his Watkins Fellowship stays in Spain, the UK, South Africa and Mongolia. To follow his stories of communities organizing around the world visit

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, Aprll 2024