Today is Preston City Council chief executive Lorraine Norris’s final day before she retires after nine years in the post, handing over to interim Adrian Phillips. Place North West talks to Norris about her legacy, Preston’s progress, and Lancashire’s chance for devolution.
Norris was promoted from deputy to chief executive in 2009, at a time when “there was no development, and the economy was really as bad as it had been in 30 years,” and the council was in the midst of planning wranglings over the £700m Tithebarn project, later to be cancelled.
Norris calls Tithebarn “the T word which just kept coming back” in her early years as chief executive. The plans were put forward by a partnership made up of the council, Grosvenor, and Lendlease in 2005. The scheme would have seen the overhaul of 32-acres in the city centre, anchored by a John Lewis and a Marks & Spencer. However, the project experienced significant delays when neighbouring councils were vocally opposed, and ultimately was cancelled in 2011 when John Lewis pulled out.
“The circumstances around it symbolized everything that was wrong with Lancashire at the time. Preston Council came forward with the planning application and it was objected to by Blackpool and Blackburn and went to a planning enquiry, so was all about the local government turning in on itself. At the point I took over, the planning enquiry was in June 2010, and while we were successful in winning the decision of the inspector, by then the economy had well and truly started to crash,” Norris said.
At the time “businesses were suffering, the high street was certainly suffering and the centre of Preston was struggling. The council’s reputation in terms of working with and trying to attract inward investment and working with developers, needed changing. We needed to go out there and reinvent ourselves.”
That reinvention saw the council focus on two aspects first; engaging the public to find out what they wanted, and engaging with investors “to give the impression that ‘this council will work with people if you come and show an interest in us’”.
For Preston residents, pedestrianising Fishergate “as much as it can be pedestrianised” was a priority and Norris hails investment in the area as one of the key successes during her time as chief executive, with the shopping route now “transformed”, thanks to ERDF money and a partnership with Lancashire County Council.
“Partnership, partnership, partnership is the name of the game,” Norris insisted, at a time when Lancashire councils are increasingly working together, in a significant change compared to a few years ago.
“We are getting there in Lancashire,” she said. “We look over to Merseyside and to Greater Manchester, at the Combined Authorities and the settlement with Government, but Lancashire’s a much more complex place. It’s got more councils and they are of different sizes, but the working relationships between the leaders of the councils and the officers, particularly the chief executives and officers that work on planning and regeneration activities, are a million times better than they were.
“There is an understanding now that if Lancashire as a whole needs to grow, Preston has a role to play in that, but so does Blackpool, so does Lancaster, so does Blackburn, so does Burnley. They’re different roles, and of course there will be some competition, you’re never going to eliminate that completely, but underlying that there is a much greater understanding that our futures are bounded together. The big wide world out there probably would struggle to know where the North West of England is, let alone where Preston is, so therefore we have to have a strong voice to play on that North West stage.
“Whether you call it the Northern Powerhouse; whether you think the Northern Powerhouse is a thing or not, the founding principle is we need to work together; we need to understand what makes this region tick; we need to ensure that all parts of it, as far as we can, are achieving their maximum potential.”
As for devolution, after a public collapse in negotiations between the 15 Lancashire councils at the start of 2017 thwarted the bid for further powers from Government, according to Norris: “Lancashire is standing ready to have conversations with Government again.
“It will be a different proposition to Manchester and Liverpool as this is a different place, but whatever it is that enables this sub-region to play a part in the bigger North West picture, that’s the direction that Lancashire is moving in. There will be twists and turns along the way; there always are complex politics, but they’re on that journey now and I don’t think they’re going to let it go.”
For Norris “seizing the opportunity for devolution” is the essential next stage for Preston and the wider county. “The fact that we weren’t in the first wave of devolution is a frustration but that opportunity’s not lost, I’m convinced of it, and Lancashire will find the model that’s right for Lancashire.”
As she departs the office, Norris praised the council team but particularly Peter Rankin, the former leader who recently retired and was replaced yesterday by Matthew Brown. “The political nature of a place is key to achieving anything really and, without him and the senior politicians here, my life would certainly have been a lot more difficult and I don’t think we would have achieved half the things we set out to do.”
Does Norris have any unfinished business?
“There are loads of things I would like to have seen happen, but I’m confident they will happen. There is some dynamism about Preston and so I am content to leave at a point where there’s lots more to do and lots more opportunities. I couldn’t wish for anything better than that really.”