Preston: a model for Oxford

Cllr. Tom Hayes, Oxford City Council’s Cabinet Member for a Safer and Greener Environment and Chair of Oxford Co-operative Party, explains how the Preston model of local investment could work in Oxford.

I may be a grown-up now, but every time I visit home, my dad can’t resist smuggling into my coat pocket a fiver that he definitely can’t afford to give away. He is increasingly unwell and struggling to get regular health care, while being hit by the Bedroom Tax. Hand on heart, Dad couldn’t pass up a promised £350m extra a week for his lifeline. Nor could he give away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to overturn a status quo that he could never remember working for him. So, while I was in Oxford on EU Referendum Day, helping get out a 70% Remain vote, my dad was helping to make up the 53% who voted to Leave in Salford. His story isn’t unique—it’s achingly familiar up and down the country.

We’re living in two countries and neither one sees the other. That’s why, in the weeks leading up to Referendum Day, my Dad was so sure we were leaving and the people I represent in Oxford were so sure we were staying. That’s why the vote to Brexit shocked many and the divisions that it revealed are felt so bitterly.

It’s become a truism that Leavers voted for this revolution for reasons linked firmly to control—control of our laws and control of our borders. The government’s torturous negotiations have shown that Brexit is unlikely to meet these needs, or to take back control. The relevant question for me, however, is how we create the sense, and the reality, of control, choice, and power on the ground.

Progressives must respond to this age of crisis by remaking our country on co-operative lines and devolving power. Presently, regeneration policies focus on city centres, never outer areas or towns. Industry policies fixate on services delivered from those urban centres, not manufacturing. Our national economic strategy is to make London the dominant global financial centre. Education policies focus on the academic not technical, elevating graduates at the expense of apprentices. Transport policy fixates on cars, never affordable, connected, and accessible public rail and bus routes. Housing policies focus on owner-occupation for the few, not council house building and rental control.

“We’re living in two countries and neither one sees the other.”

Our regions, the innovators of the industrial revolution, have seen the beating social and economic hearts of their communities smashed to pieces and replaced with insecure, low-paid jobs in call centres, services, and warehouses. Our towns and cities are straight-jacketed by an undemocratic economic model propped up by central government and its neoliberal agenda. Ours must be a vision of a fairer society which works for all, and we can only implement the policies that will drive this change if we devolve political and economic power more widely.

The centralisation of decision-making in authority so distant from us impugns our sense of what it is to be a self-governing people. Empowering local communities enables them to create and retain wealth locally, produce employment opportunities, promote employee ownership, and ensure that business decisions are made in the interests of citizens instead of generating money for shareholders.

Preston is the best example of this community wealth building model. So-called anchor institutions—devolved authorities, universities, the police, and hospitals—began spending locally on goods and services, with the result that local suppliers secured an extra £75 million in 2016/17. In addition to the use of procurement powers, Preston anchor bodies collectively commit to paying a real living wage to local workers. And, finally, the council and university are enabling worker owned co-operatives to compete for public sector contracts.

There is much that Oxford can learn from the Preston model. Oxford City Council already pays the Oxford Living Wage, spends over 36% of its budget with small and medium-sized enterprises, spends over 70% with local suppliers, and operates a higher level of support for the local voluntary sector than that of many other districts. But, the co-operative and community wealth building approach could enable us to go further. Identifying appropriate anchor institutions in Oxford, exploring how we could collectively use our procurement spends to achieve social and environmental goals, and working with co-operators to help grow our co-operative sector are all extremely important goals.

The election of a transformative Co-operative and Labour government is nothing less than fundamental for devolving decision-making power. Only considered and intelligent devolution delivered at the national level can empower communities to remake their own economies, create and retain wealth, and increase worker ownership. At a local level, councils such as my own will go on doing their best, but we need a government which will give our communities control, choice, and power. The need for such a change has never been so important; with our country so divided by Brexit, we need systemic change. It’s time to reunite our country by remaking it.

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