Sunday, March 18, 2018

What's the purpose of towns in the digital age?

Ann Coffey MP for Stockport, and me
I don't get asked to speak myself so much these days, even though I'm probably involved in more speech writing, briefing and events organising than I have ever been.

It was a real delight to accept an offer from Stockport's first rate Labour MP Ann Coffey to speak with members about the big issues facing towns.

In the welcoming confines of Heaton Moor United Reform Church, I talked through three big challenges that digital has thrown at us all, which sparked a fascinating discussion. It wasn't a speech as such, there was no list of demands for the council or a future Labour government, but some themes for us to think through with a bit more evidence, knowledge and humility.

Firstly, I looked at the specific profile of Stockport's economy, drawing on some of the work of the Stockport Work and Skills Commission and what skills the jobs of the future are going to require and how everyone can build the resilience to keep learning and adapting to change. This, I suggested, was an opportunity for plenty beyond what we'd call the skills ecosystem: families, small businesses and trade unions, who I still feel have missed on an opportunity to engage with members in better equipping them for the 21st century.

Secondly, I tried to reconcile what these employment trends will mean to how we use land, building and open spaces. In short, what's it going to mean for where we shop, live and spend our leisure time? Where are new homes going to be built? And what will be the purposes of town centres if big box retail is in such sharp decline - Marks and Spencer is soon to depart Stockport - and how can this be far better integrated into how we imagine a Greater Manchester, surely better transport links is a priority?

Thirdly, digital has demanded a re-thinking of how public services are delivered. Yes, Stockport has done some transformative work, but if we look further east to Estonia, a small country of 1.5 million people we see the laboratory of a digital society. What then for the old debate on compulsory ID cards?

I have to say I really enjoyed it. The local members were very knowledgable and more than anything we had a good trawl through the issues. More of this, please.

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