Report: Is Brexit really what Preston needs?

I was born and grew up in Preston, Lancashire. So for CommonGround I was keen to head home and get a sense of why Preston had voted to Leave. Of course, you can’t get a full picture in a day visit but you can go beyond headlines and get a feel.  

In Preston 34,518 voted Leave. 30,277 voted Remain. So Leave got 53% of those who voted.  Turnout was 68.7%. Preston’s population is 140,000.

Quick background: Proud Preston has been a town since a Charter was granted in 1179. Preston was built on cotton and massive industrialization of the 19th Century. The inventor of factories Richard Arkwright was born here.

Preston is a stoical place, phlegmatic, not given to flashy overstatement. Preston weathered 20th Century industrial decline and a very bleak 1980s.

The city has lots going for it. Attractive city centre. Good shopping. The stunning Harris Museum.

But I was struck by the sense of parts of Preston that feel left out and left behind. Approx 30% of people are on low-skilled and minimum wage jobs or close to it. And in precarious employment. There is a large privately rented sector with some properties in poor shape. Council leader Peter Rankin told us that many came out to vote who do not normally vote.

Some of the people we spoke to said the Leave campaign had caught the imagination. Leave was very active on the ground. Their promise of £350m EVERY WEEK FOR NHS hit a chord. The nearby A&E in Chorley is closing down, so the promise of new NHS money was popular. Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and Michael Gove arrived in their big red bus. By contrast, the Remain campaign was low energy and low profile. David Cameron was not a particularly popular figure, after 6 years of cuts to public services in Preston.

Immigration has put some pressures on Preston, but community relations are generally pretty good.  Preston is a relatively cohesive place. People get on. Burnley has at times seen a growth of the far Right, but not Preston. There was an EDL rally in Preston attended by about 80 people in early 2016. Then a fantastic response from the people of Preston –  PRESTON TOGETHER, attended we were told by about 2,000 people. So immigration was a factor in the Leave vote – we were told there was “a sense that immigrants are taking jobs, housing and access to NHS which could be ours” –  but not a big one.

From what I could gather, Prestonians voted Leave for a whole mix of reasons. For more money for the NHS. Protest against cuts to local services. Poor housing and limited jobs. To give Cameron and the Tory government a kicking. Years of sustained drip-feed negativity about Europe from the Sun, The Mail and The Express.

BAE is nearby where the Tornado was made, and Eurofighter. It is too early to tell, but if Brexit is bad for BAE, then Brexit will be bad for Preston. The other big employer is University of Central Lancashire, with a staff around 2,000 and more than 30,000 students. The money and buzz that foreign students bring to Preston is crucial. If that is harmed by Brexit, then that will be bad news for the whole city.

Preston has survived worse things than Brexit and you get the feeling it will survive and thrive. That said, in a city so reliant on two major employers – it feels to me like a big risk, and not really what this city needs.