Why the experts think Preston is the most rapidly improving city in the country

PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 November 2018

The beautifully restored Victorian market

The beautifully restored Victorian market


This Lancashire city is transforming itself into a centre for the best food and drink, hospitality and heritage

Adrian Phillips says the town is showing energy and ambitionAdrian Phillips says the town is showing energy and ambition

When the multi-million pound Tithebarn development to regenerate Preston city centre fell through seven years ago, cynics suggested it spelled the end of its ambitions to be a flourishing centre for retailing and culture. But the city, once at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, has confounded the pessimists and lived up to the ‘Proud Preston’ tag.

Recent research by thinktank Demos and accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers found Preston was the most rapidly improving city in the country.

The study used a range of measures including employment, workers’ pay, transport and the environment and ranked 42 cities. Preston was named most improved, and was the 14th best city to live and work in overall, a place ahead of London.

The city’s change in fortunes have been thanks, in no small part, to the continually evolving food and drink offer, its cultural scene and a healthy dose of determination and co-operation. It’s a heartening turn of events for Adrian Phillips, the city council chief executive since May.

Chris Shankly outside the �15million new hotelChris Shankly outside the �15million new hotel

‘The people want their city to thrive and that shines through,’ he said. ‘The community wants us to deliver success which is exactly how it should be. It’s up to us to be energetic and ambitious for the city. Food and drink has played a large role with great places like new restaurant Bistrot Pierre. It’s an amazing place and its owners have cherished the heritage of the building.

‘There’s also our wonderful Harris Museum, the Guild Hall and a really exciting number of developments coming up. We’re a city that’s moving forward and developing.’

Preston’s ability to reinvent itself has been at the heart of its success with developments like the redeveloped and restored Victorian market canopy. It reinvigorated a once tired looking part of the city and offered the ideal showcase for established and fledgling businesses.

‘We’re proud of the market,’ said Adrian. ‘We have great traders located in a fantastic structure. The main 1875 Victorian canopy is vast with enormous strength and great beauty. It’s a place that offers something a bit different.’

Rebecca Scott, Jeremy Rowlands and Nicola Heritage and the 40ft feet  well at PlauRebecca Scott, Jeremy Rowlands and Nicola Heritage and the 40ft feet well at Plau

It is hoped the market redevelopment will be one of many that will bring people to Preston to live, work and visit. As well as the recent opening of the popular Bistrot Pierre restaurant, there is a £35 million city centre cinema in conjunction with The Light in the pipeline with more bars and restaurants in the new building.

There is also the arrival of the prestigious Shankly Hotel. The new £15 million luxury hotel, in the old Post Office building, will have 65 rooms, restaurant, spa, wedding venue and function space. The hotel group, named after the former Preston North End player Bill Shankly, who went on to manage Liverpool, was founded by his grandson, Chris.

‘I founded The Shankly because I wanted my grandad’s legacy to live on,’ said Chris. ‘He spent 16 years of his life here in Preston. It’s a place that meant a lot to him and shaped who he was.’

The new hotel, set to open in July, will reinvigorate a building that has been empty for more than a decade. At its heart will also be a celebration of Bill Shankly, his Preston heritage and his footballing friend, Sir Tom Finney. Memorabilia from Sir Tom’s son, Brian, will take pride of place in the hotel alongside Shankly mementoes. There will also be archive items from the National Football Museum, still held at Deepdale.

‘When the football museum moved to Manchester it didn’t go down well. We wanted to put something back. We’ve got some great items like Sir Tom’s Freedom of the City of Preston scroll.

‘Preston was quite intriguing, too. There’s been a lot of investment in the city with a lot of people looking to do interesting things here. It’s a new challenge for us. Our other hotels are in established tourism destinations but this is an up and coming place.

‘I want to be able to say in five to ten years time that we were a catalyst. Since we announced we were coming here, the excitement has been fantastic. I’m looking forward to seeing how Preston embraces it.’

Another group who have worked tirelessly to bring an old building back to life are Jeremy Rowlands, Nicola Heritage and Rebecca Scott, owners of the Meat and Drink Company.

They have restored the buildings – and the fortunes – of several Preston pubs including The Continental, The Plungington Hotel and The Moorbrook. But it is Plau in Friargate, located in the former Plough Inn dating back to 1668, that has been a labour of love. What was initially supposed to be a renovation of just one floor into a gin bar became a project that took several years and expanded to four floors. It opened just a few weeks ago.

The trio uncovered fascinating historical items including an 18th century distillery in the basement and an original well dating back to medieval times. It has been covered with glass and is a feature in the cellar bar.

Jeremy said: ‘We uncovered the vaults, found cellar rooms and this amazing old well that dates from between 1100 and 1600. We also found old bottles and even some dominoes made of bone. There’s also a connection here with the Temperance movement. Thomas Swindlehurst took a pledge of total abstinence in The Plough Inn in 1832. It was seen as one of the pivotal moments in the movement in the 19th century.

‘This project has grown and we’ve let the building dictate what we’ve done. There is a lot of anticipation for Plau and we’re excited to see what happens.’

Preston’s potential has attracted investment as well as a will for it to succeed. One business is so convinced the city has a bright future they are creating Preston’s first loft apartments, Union Carriage Works. Etc Urban Developments are building the new homes in Guildhall Street. The 18 apartments, due to be completed in January, are being built in a former carriageworks and yeast factory that had been derelict for 15 years. A food hall, designed to celebrate Lancashire food and drink and act as a city base for well known restaurants, will also be created on the ground floor.

‘We wanted to create something Preston didn’t already have,’ said director Neil Thornton. ‘We want create a destination and be involved in Preston’s future. We want to try and make a difference.’

Reimagining The Harris

Staff at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery will be waiting with bated breath this month. The cultural gem, which marks its 125th anniversary this year, could be granted £3.5 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund towards the £10.7 million ‘Re-imagining the Harris’ plans. The project, if successful, will include renovation work as well as opening up parts of the building and bringing it into a digital age. It is hoped it will create an innovative environment where the museum, library and art collection and services are brought together in a community-led hub. The funding announcement will follow the launch of the #HarrisYourPlace campaign, designed to drum up support from the local community. Tim Joel, deputy head of culture, said: ‘The funding would have a huge impact for Preston and the county. The Harris is a significant cultural institution, visitor attraction and community hub. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.’

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