The scholar Richard Sennett once wrote, “modern capitalism works by colonizing people’s imagination of what is possible”. If it is the case that our current economic model thrives by creating the conditions that suppress rather than unleash the imagination, and if we recognise that now, more than any other time, we need a mass re-nourishing of the collective imagination, then where might we spot examples of ‘the economics of the imagination’? Eight years ago, the economy of Preston was crocked. Then its Council decided to take a new approach. Today I’m speaking to Cllr Matthew Brown, the recently-elected leader of Preston City Council. What Preston have achieved should be a model for everywhere else. “Let’s have a bit of imagination about how to get out of this mess” he tells me. I last interviewed him in June 2015, so I started by asking him, when we spoke just before Christmas, what has changed since then?

The biggest thing that’s changed is we’ve got lots of indicators how it’s been very successful, the approach we’ve begun within Preston.  When I spoke to you in 2015, I think it was, we’d just started a couple of years before with the anchor institutions, so we weren’t at that time totally aware of how transformative these ideas were becoming.

It was only two years later when we went through the books of the organisations again and we realised that just in 2016-2017 alone there’d been an extra £75 million that had been redirected to Preston based suppliers, and £200 million across Lancashire.  At that time, we weren’t really at that stage.  We knew that things were happening, but we didn’t know how much of an effect it had had.  But since then we’ve also got the University of Central Lancashire have come on board, who are becoming very, very embedded in this culture because as well as buying locally, they’re helping us, through the SME department, incubate cooperative businesses, which are going to bid for a lot of the wealth that’s leaking out of the local economy.

Cllr Matthew Brown.

They’re also doing some fantastic work with drone technology, which they’re doing with ourselves and the County Council, who are also located in Preston.  That is looking at how to establish a civic drone centre.  So basically that will mean that the potential is going to be the usage of drones, which in 12 years’ time is going to be a big addition to the UK economy in terms of GDP, but they’re looking at having some use for the community.  It’s going to be a community drone centre, which itself might be a cooperative.  That might link again to the local supply chain, because we’ve got SMES that potentially could manufacture the drones.

Because I think they’re mainly manufactured in China, and then also we’ve got British Aerospace, which is 10 or so miles down the road, so potentially there’s opportunities to keep that wealth in the local and regional economy there.  That’s where we are with it.  I’ll probably come to that later.  There’s some things that are ongoing which are potentially quite transformative as well, which I’ll tell you about later on.

One of the things that I’ve been exploring with a lot of people is around the idea of ‘what if’ questions.  So for example, I went to Liege in Belgium, where Transition Liege were doing this amazing project called the Food Belt, which came out of a ‘what if’ question, which was “What if in a generation’s time, the majority of food eaten in Liege were grown on the land closest to Liege?” and it’s unlocked 21 new coops and all sorts of different stuff.  If you could go back to the beginning of this process, and formulate what your initial enquiry was that set you off on this path as a ‘what if’ question, what would it have been, do you think?

I mean, it’s an excellent question.  What if?  Well I was thinking, “What if we had a much more democratic economy and we had forms of economic activity and production and ownership that were a lot more rooted in the hands of the public and the community?”  That’s what started the project off originally, because I was always very inspired by Mondragon, but how they’d applied the Mondragon principles to Cleveland, Ohio, with the work of Ted Howard, who’s always been an inspiration to us in Preston.

The thing that stuck out back then was the fact they’d created worker owned businesses linked to what the public sector bought, around renewable energy, food, and laundry.  So the ‘what if’ was, “What if we can do this here?” really, to be honest.  That was the inspiration, but obviously what we had to do was change the culture.  So initially obviously – and  we’re pleased about this as well, we’re delighted that a lot of locally based businesses, small businesses, have won this extra £75million within Preston just within that one year – but there was always a strong element that we wanted to, like Cleveland, look at the cooperative side of things.

We got our first worker coop business that’s come out of the Preston model, which is based around food.  It’s sourcing from local farmers, small farmers mainly, that are located about 10 miles from Preston.  It’s then going to be a café.  That’s the first part of it.  But it’s also linked to the supply chain of the local farmers, and they already do some fantastic work around education and trying to tackle food deserts.

But the ‘what if’ bit is I’d always say, “Well we’ve identified there’s at least £10 million leaking out of the public sector within Preston in Lancashire.  What if they won a significant part of that?”  What excites me is that if you were successful through a competitive process, potentially you could have 30 or 40 people in a cooperative.  Say they won a contract worth £1 million or £2 million, then you could have a number of them that would link together.

But then also we’re supporting the idea of the Community Bank.  Now I’m leader of Preston City Council, these ideas I’m promoting across Lancashire.  Again, the ‘what if’ is “What if this bank then lends to these cooperatives and even small businesses as well to actually have this virtuous cycle of economic activity?”  So those were the moments.  In my mind, this can work extremely well, but the challenge, as ever, is that when you confront people with new ideas, they’re often a bit resistant or they’re a bit scared.  But what we are trying to achieve with this project is extreme common sense.

We’ve got to be respectful of everyone involved in this, because obviously we have a political dimension at Preston City Council.  Obviously the Police and Crime Commissioner is Labour as well.  But there’s other institutions such as the colleges and the University where they don’t have a political role.  But they are embracing the inclusive growth agenda.  Then we’ve got one or two Conservative councillors as well that do support the idea of supporting local businesses, so it’s a collaborative approach, but within that wide umbrella of collaboration, there’s some very creative things you can do.  I’m very confident about how the coop side is going to become much more predominant in the next couple of years.

Preston’s new covered market.

One of the things that I see in places that bring this more imaginative way of doing it, other than business as usual, is that it in turn unlocks more imagination in other people.  It feels like the last 15 or 20 years has been this downward spiral of negativity which shuts down people’s possibilities, and then they feel more negative about what’s possible, and then the possibilities shrink and contract.  Actually what it feels like you’re doing is pushing in the other direction, where as you open up more things, more things feel possible and people feel more imaginative and more positive.  Has that been your observation?

Yes.  Some things are springing up out of this agenda – out of the organisations themselves, and the individuals as well.  For example our largest housing association, which is actually a tenant led cooperative, so it’s very democratic, what they’ve done is they’ve actually insourced a lot of work.  At least £10m.  This is a decision that they’ve made, I should imagine, and obviously we do have a number of our councillors on the board who I assume would have been supportive of the decision.  But they’ve taken a decision collectively to insource a lot of the activity back into the cooperative.

But also as well, when they’re doing that, and doing other work too, they’re employing their own tenants, giving their own tenants jobs.  Again it makes sense because it means that people can pay the rent on time.  So things like that are happening as well.  Lancashire Constabulary, they’re doing some fantastic things around procurement, and around trying to get trade union recognition into contracts, which we support, but also lots of things around equality and diversity.  That basically that any company that they do commission, that they’ve not been found to discriminate in some form of employment tribunal that they’ve been involved in.

So yeah, things like are happening, around that kind of ballpark area, which is very, very positive.  Again this is taking on its own strength now because of the collaboration that we have.

So things are starting to pop up that weren’t things that you’ve conceived of centrally?  Just good things are popping up because the atmosphere is changing, I guess?

It is, yeah.  It’s extremely positive indeed.  What is positive is that all the heads of our local public sector are very forward-thinking people.  I was a bit scared when I started doing this, because we’re not the largest public sector employer within Preston.  We’re very significant and we do have the legitimacy because we’re the elected City government so to speak in Preston.  But it’s amazing how we come to them with ideas and it’s not like, “Well, we’re not interested.”  They really want to help, and vice versa now.

One of the things that I’ve done a lot of research about is about when people feel very stressed and anxious and traumatised, their imagination shrinks.  The part of the brain where the imagination comes from visibly shrinks under those kinds of settings, and poverty, where people are in poverty.  So one of the things about cultivating the imagination is to create different conditions, because people lose that ability to think about the future, and imagine a future in positive ways, to talk about the future.  Have you had any sense through the work that you’re doing about how people’s ability to perceive the future, or think about it in a more hopeful way, has started to change?  Any observations?

I think because physically a lot of things are happening now, because what we are seeing is we’ve got a new municipally owned market so I need to pay tribute to our former late Lead Councillor Peter Rankin.  He was very behind having a new market with independent traders in the centre of Preston.  We got that.  That’s happened.  We got other things around the procurement as I mentioned before.  So a lot of local companies are benefiting.

That has a knock on effect with the supply chain.  Also a lot of our other assets of the city centre are being reinvigorated and the University is investing £250 million within Preston with their masterplan.  They call themselves now a ‘civic anchor institution’.  So the language they’re using is well, “Yes, we do educate people and give them degrees, but we’re also a big social and economic actor within the community.”  All that put together is giving people a sense of hope.  Especially when they’re seeing that things are happening.

Now there’s other things that are a bit more conventional – well, they weren’t conventional 10 years ago but they are pretty much now, in the sense that we’ve always been behind a real living wage, which is going to be at least £9 an hour.  Now because the public sector, pretty much, the majority of them pay that, and when they’re purchasing as well, they’re bringing it into social value whenever they can, the amount of people who receive the real living wage or more, we’re now the best for people who work within Preston, out of 14 council areas in Lancashire.

So there’s a lot more money around.  You see the confidence in the city because there’s now an extra I think 12,000 employees within Preston because I think a lot of these policies put together, with a bit of luck and other policies, there’s now an extra 12,000 employees.  We got about 72,000 people who work as employees in Preston, and only about 3 years ago, that was about 59,000, 60,000.  A lot more people are working, there’s a lot more money around, and they’re spending that money.

You’re now seeing lots of new really creative independent businesses that are emerging as well.  There’s that sense of confidence that I feel.  But things aren’t perfect here.  Don’t think that.  We’ve still got issues with homelessness.  We’ve got issues with child poverty.  We’ve got austerity that’s taking place.  And universal credit’s been introduced as well, which is going to be a nightmare for a lot of people in our community.  But there’s a bit of a sense that we’re coming together.  We’re improving as a city.

You might have seen the PricewaterouseCooper’s report.  Yeah, those are independently verified figures, so there’s a sense that we are improving.  We are fighting back in some ways, but it’s against a very challenging backdrop obviously because we’ve got an economic model which basically doesn’t benefit most people for a start, because of the way it’s organised.  We’ve got a situation in which investment’s more attracted to major cities, like central London, or possibly Manchester.  But we’ve managed to fight back, really, which is really positive, and take back a bit of control for the people here.  Not in a right-wing pro-Brexit way, but in a very progressive way.

There is that confidence growing, but I want to deepen this.  I’m really keen on the Bank because we need that to combat financial exclusion.  So obviously hopefully the bank, which we’re looking at, the community bank, that can be operational across Lancashire, and potentially wider, in the next two years.  That’s one of my main priorities.  Obviously the expansion of cooperatives, that’s something we’ll be working on too.  But other things we’re doing around, just in the medium term, just trying to make sure that especially during school holidays people get access to affordable food.

We’re doing lots of work with the community around that.  We are fighting back and we are doing lots of really good things, which is making a difference, but do the community feel it?  I think they’re beginning to.  I don’t think everyone understands it in the community.  A lot of these ideas are understood by lots of economists and politicians who, rightly in many ways, most people don’t think about those ideas, but I think there’s a sense that the city’s coming together now as one to try and do something really special.

One of the things that I’ve spoken to a lot of people and asked them about, is when people have a really great ‘what if’ question – I was speaking to people in Jackson, the Cooperative Jackson stuff in the US, about how the black liberation movement there has those really big ‘what if’ questions like, “What if there were no prisons?  What if there were no police?  What if justice worked in a very different way?’ I’m asking how do they keep a really big what if question like that over time.  I wonder what’s been your experience of how have you kept the vision that you’ve bought to this alive over time?  So in a way that may be advice for other people who might be thinking of doing something similar?

It’s not just me is it?  It’s a collaboration of people and institutions.  Obviously I’ve been quite a big architect of it politically, but it’s needed a number of colleagues and people to do this.  What’s kept it alive? Well, what I am very good at, is I’m very good looking around, both in this country and elsewhere, for ideas that might be quite transformative.  That’s what the Preston model is really.  It’s responding to the system problem we have with the economy, which is a national issue and it even goes further than a national issue, into an international issue.

But also it’s about trying to respond to austerity as well, and trying to look at ways we can self-organise as a community for our own economic endeavours and to try to make people richer and better off.  That’s what’s kept me going.  But the way I’ve done that is I’ve looked around at ideas from a number of places, both here in the UK but also Europe, America, which are quite transformative, and try to put them together.

The only analogy I can come up with – it might seem a bit daft, but David Bowie was a musician, he used to take different musical styles and put them all together.  So we’re trying to do that politically in some ways.

You’re ‘the David Bowie of economic development’?

I’m nowhere near as talented as David Bowie is.  But we’re trying to do that in a political and economic context really.  That just came to my mind, because if you look at what David Bowie did as a musician, especially when he started, he was inspired by Tony Newley and I think Scott Walker, so his voice was cultivated by that.  Then he got into electronic music and soul music.

He’d look around and say, “Well, these are really powerful approaches and musical styles” and put them altogether.  We’re kind of looking to do that a bit, but in a political and economic context.  With things that we feel will really make a difference, a big difference.

One of the questions I’ve asked everybody that I’ve interviewed is if you had been elected, rather than Theresa May, at the last election, and you had run on a platform of ‘Make Britain Imaginative Again’ – so you felt, looking around, with the climate crisis, austerity, that what we’re seeing is this demise of the imagination and a shutting down of possibilities at the very time when we need to be at our most vibrant and imaginative – so you felt, we need to be seeing a revival of the imagination in education, in public life, in politics, in music, in everything, and that was the platform you had run on, what might you do in your first 100 days in office?

I don’t have much aspiration to be in that position.  That’s the thing you see.  It is yeah, because part of me doesn’t really focus on these things at all.  But what would I try to do?  I’d try to have a sense of the community coming together but to do that you’ve got to make radical changes I think.

Obviously austerity would end, but there’s ideas around Universal Basic Income.  There’s merit in that definitely.  Especially if it doesn’t devalue work, because I understand the trade unions’ concerns, but things like that would be good to fire the imagination and breed that creativity that’s needed, and give people freedom in their lives.  Because we’ve only got the one life.  We might as well enjoy it while we’re here instead of working all the time, often getting little reward for it.  So, yeah, looking at ideas like that.

I’d also try and look at other ideas to democratise economies, and put working people more in control of what they do.  That would be essential.  I mean obviously more important, or equally as important at least, is to pour money into the health service, abolish tuition fees, have decent schools, have decent early years education and all the rest of it.  But while you’re doing that, I just believe that we need this democracy at every level of our society, including in the workplace because there’s very little of it in the workplace often for a lot of people.  And they’re working for other people often who do exploit them a lot and I think they’re very unhappy.

I think – if you want to be adult – act as an adult.  Sometimes you’ve got to give people responsibility.  Promoting enterprises like worker coops or employee owned businesses, it makes people mature because you’ve got to take responsibilities or share the rewards.  It’s a bit immature just working for a large multinational which is the same in every town and city where if you’re lucky you might have a trade union who will negotiate on your behalf and be able to defend your rights.  But if you’re not lucky, they’re basically going to pay you as little as possible and give you as few rights as possible.

It’s a very childish way of organising things myself.  We’re crying out for a new economic approach, after the 2008 crisis which has affected everyone and actually led to the austerity that we all suffered.

You talked about democracy and needing more democracy.  In places like Jackson they’ve created all these citizen assemblies and in Barcelona they have the neighbourhood assemblies that feed up the ideas for policy and soon.  Has there been a parallel reimagining of local democracy in Preston to accompany the economy stuff you’ve been doing?

Not particularly, no.  There is community involvement.  It’s been a bit top down, what we’ve done, which I think is not bad in some instances.  Most people think it is bad, but I think starting it top-down is not bad.  But where we are getting interest now is – I mean, the trade unions have always been really supportive, which is fantastic and within Preston the local trades council and elsewhere.  The churches and the Mosques and Hindu temples, organisations like that, they’re very keen on these ideas.  Lancashire Citizens, which operates now within Preston, which is really good.  And the voluntary sector.

In that respect the community are involved, but the next step of it must be trying to give them more of a say over what does happen more directly.  Now I’d love to do that, but when we’re facing cutbacks every year, it’s just difficult to organise a participatory budgeting policy when we do have the money to actually allow them to participate in it.  What we’re doing now can potentially lead to that participation.  Because if more of the public wealth that’s spent is spent with local companies, often small companies, you’re getting people to participate in that way.

You had an amazing reaction nationally to what you’ve been doing.  Like you said you won this award. The Labour party are all over the Preston model and Corbyn talking about it becoming policy and so on.  What does that say, do you think, about the lack of imaginative ideas elsewhere?  The impact that austerity has had on our imagination of what’s possible at a national level?

There’s interest from a number of places to be honest.  The whole Preston model work, it does predate the election Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.  But I’m very much of that political tradition, you can imagine, so I’m delighted we both see merit in it.  But what’s interesting, and what fascinates me, is the responses seen in American cities like Cleveland, or Rochester, or Jackson, they’re not dissimilar to the responses you’re beginning to see here, and in some European cities, as you say, like Barcelona.

Because what we’re seeing is an international and economic meltdown.  Okay.  So it’s a transnational situation.  And then austerity, that’s been a global situation as well, hasn’t it?  So people are looking at these new models in a number of places.  So, yeah, there’s probably about 50-60 different places in the UK that are expressing an interest in what we’re doing here.  But they can’t all be replicated here and sent to work up a [inaudible 25:23] strategies there.  They’re excellent to actually guide places through that, because they realise what happens in Preston might not be appropriate for say Dudley, or Birmingham, or wherever it’s going to be.

But the principles of building community wealth that we’ve started here, they’re universal to be honest and they could be adopted anywhere.  So I’ll just leave it at that to be honest, because I do think there is lots of interesting thinking in different places apart from here that’s emerging.  Both within the Labour movement and elsewhere.  But where we’re getting the interest is because we’re looking at system change.  That’s what’s catching the imagination.

So that was all my questions.  Just if you had any last thoughts about imagination in relation to what you’re doing there that I haven’t asked you the right question for?

I just want to see a culture, both economically and politically, and in the community, where people are encouraged to come forward with new ideas and they’re listened to.  Because often what happens, and I don’t know if it’s a male thing or whatever, but you just feel that often ideas aren’t listened to by a lot of people.  It’s like, “Well, you’re doing what you’re told.  This is the way it’s always been done.”

I think to be really mature, and really actually tackle the pressing problems of the time, we need to listen to everybody.  And we should listen to all ideas about we can actually create really, really good communities, and make sure that wealth is shared, because ultimately we’ve still got a situation in this country where if you’re born in one part of the UK you’re probably going to die at 61 and in another part It might be 90.  And what is the economy for if it’s leading to those outcomes?  It’s still grossly unfair and it needs to be tackled.

And if you don’t tackle it, if we don’t look for new ways of tackling it, then potentially you’re looking at civil unrest or potentially worse.  So yes, we always need to be open to new ideas.  Obviously they need to be feasible.  They need to be investigated.  But let’s have a bit of imagination about how to get out of this mess we’ve been in for the last 10 years and potentially longer.