Gone are the days when politicians and the business community were struggling to establish the busy, vibrant destination as ‘the third city of the North’ after Manchester and Liverpool.
The ‘hangover’ following the buildup and collapse of the Tithebarn scheme is also beginning to fade, and both the public and private sectors alike are now looking to the future with renewed optimism.
Hundreds of millions of pounds worth of projects are due to take place in the city in coming years – the £430million City Deal to improve infrastructure, UCLan’s £200m campus redevelopment, and a £50m scheme to develop a new leisure and retail offering in the market quarter are all signs that Preston is an attractive place to invest.
But can this historic city – the birthplace of the industrial revolution and still the administrative centre of the county – be all things to all people? And what does the future hold?
Peter Rankin, leader of Preston City Council, said the hard work of recent years has paid off, but the focus of investment is changing.
He explained: “We have a good story to tell. We’re not in the business of competing with Liverpool and Manchester, but having said that, a lot of investors who have perhaps looked at Manchester as an option are indeed seeing Preston as the next big place to invest in.
“But don’t forget, it’s been a lot of hard work getting to this point. We had a very big regeneration programme that by the time I became leader was just about to collapse because of the global financial crisis in 2008.
“Retail as a sector still hasn’t got the importance it once had, so the key is trying to make the city centre attractive to both businesses and the public in a number of different ways to keep the offering fresh.
“For instance, the council is putting money into the Harris Museum which we consider to be the jewel in Preston’s crown. We have tremendous assets like this across the city, there’s no doubt about it, and there is a real buzz about Preston.”
For others, the private sector has a large role to play in ensuring the Preston of the future is as successful as the Preston of the past.
David Robinson, managing partner at architects, surveyors and designers Frank Whittle Partnership, points to entrepreneurs including Simon Rigby, owner of various ventures including the Preston Guild Hall, as a prime example.
According to David, the private sector is very optimistic. He said: “Because of entrepreneurs like Simon Rigby who can be seen to be getting things done quickly, the climate is very favourable for development and progression of the city.
“Compared with Manchester prices, perhaps less so Liverpool, Preston is a far more viable place to get things done and to build things for many developers.
“In Manchester the rent can be very pricey and the buildings being built are also very pricey. We shouldn’t try to compete with that. We will inevitably benefit from the fact that not everybody can work in central Manchester, and our access is as good as it gets for those who might want to commute.”
The attraction of Preston over its sometimes better known regional rivals shouldn’t be underestimated. Just a short trip down the motorway, and boasting similar journey times to London, Preston is proving a popular destination for students too.
In the past half the battle has been to make the city attractive enough for students to stay on in Preston after they graduate, and prevent the so-called ‘brain drain’ common to many university cities and towns.
Matt Eastham is managing director of Easthams & Co, offering residential property management, block management and corporate relocation.
He believes that whilst the initial signs of regeneration can clearly be seen there is still a lot of work to be done attracting major employers into the City centre which is key to ensuring the success of the councils City living strategy.
Matt said: “For a decade we’ve been bringing developers to Preston and saying, let’s do something. Finally the penny seems to have dropped and there has been unprecedented interest in sites a cross the City.
“We are seeing more graduates remaining in Preston after graduation and more tellingly an increase in young professionals moving back from the likes of Manchester and Leeds. For 20 years we’ve seen it happen the other way round, so it’s a noticeable change.”
For Councillor Peter Rankin, one driving force in the city has been the links between the public and private sectors: “We don’t see it as anything other than an equal partnership. We’re trying to ensure that the investment is put in place to encourage the private sector to come in, and help and support them when they do.”
A prime example of the public and private sectors coming together can be seen in the centre of Preston – the city’s leafy Winckley Square is benefiting from a £1.2m investment led by the Winckley Square Community Interest Company (WSCIC).
Simon Turner, cofounder and director of the WSCIC, said: “There is a real hunger and appetite to see Preston evolve as a city.
“We’re seeing the private and public sector work closer together than ever before. With funding cuts in local authorities it’s the only way forward. We’ve seen the benefit of this through the Winckley Square project which has seen the private sector work together with Preston City Council, LCC and Preston BID to achieve this spectacular result.
“This particular project should be seen as the start and not the end. We are now working with authorities to see how we can leverage this success and see further regeneration in the surrounding district which will see the area become its own distinct city district, something that we see in cities across the world.”
David Robinson of FWP agrees. He said: “The best local authorities do work very closely with the private sector, doing everything they can to facilitate and coordinate.
“The public sector obviously has restrictions, and they don’t see the private sector as something to be afraid of, and Preston is getting very good at this approach.”
Martin Beardsworth, Commercial Property partner at Napthens, said the housing market has had an important part to play in ‘re-energising’ Preston, with developments back on track at a rate not seen for several years.
Banks too, previously reticent to lend, are once again becoming more involved and showing a keen interest in projects.
Martin said: “We haven’t seen enquiries like it for a long time; we’re being approached by landowners about developments that might lead to significant numbers of houses.
“There’s also a similar, increasing need for serviced apartments and student accommodation too as the university continues its expansion plans.
“There is no doubt the City Deal has created a lot of interest in Preston as a location for businesses, in areas like Walton Summit and around Ringway. There are plenty of entrepreneurs who are going that extra mile to get a project started that they’ve had on the backburner for some time.
“However, it’s important to ensure that work carries on behind the scenes. We know that new developments do dilute the secondhand market so there is a fine line to be trod.”
Tom Fox, managing director at Bowker Motor Group Group, said the investment in Preston gives the business community a lot to be optimistic about, but only if it triggers a collective response.
He highlighted work Bowker has done: “We have recently acquired adjacent properties and redeveloped our gateway location on the docks.
As a private Lancashire family business, we have been proud to invest in the city. And it’s that kind of commercial intent we’d hope to see through all areas of the city and region’s economy.
“I’d like Preston to be distinctive of course, but above all collaborative and influential in its position within the North West. This means strengthening relationships with Manchester and Liverpool – not fearing them.
“If we focus too much on the city’s own needs then we risk fuelling a parochial mindset of fear and mistrust of our neighbours. History shows, with the Tithebarn project for example, this never ends well.
“It’s better to collaborate and position Preston as indispensable to the prosperity of the North West region as a whole.
Individual businesses have a big role to play. We can affect this transformation as much as the larger organisations by keeping in step with the investment. And make sure we play a big part in the region’s future prosperity.”