FIRSTLY, I’d like to thank the many residents, business and council staff who sent me such kind messages after the Queen’s Birthday Honours list came out last Friday night.
It’s extremely humbling to have been awarded an OBE in amongst the great and good across the country, and you can read my initial reaction here.
On Saturday afternoon it was straight back to business when I attended the opening of a new community enterprise called Hack Oldham in the town centre.
Before getting there I had in my mind the idea that I was going to see a team of busy IT enthusiasts working in a cool, imaginative space: a little like a mini ‘Sharp Project’, I suppose.
I certainly wasn’t expecting what I then discovered and it had much more of an effect on me than perhaps the organisers would have imagined.
Firstly, there are plenty of IT hobbyists, entrepreneurs and creative people around, but what was impressive to see here was the application of technology to everyday problems.
The workshop setting wasn’t a clinical laboratory. It was a proper old school workshop complete with wooden benches, power tools and things were being made.
And old world met new world as in the next room a row of 3D printers were busy creating a scale topographic model of Oldham!
I was really inspired by the creativity in that little workshop and the fact that here is a new community space, run by the community, and for the community.
During the opening event – not, of course, a standard ribbon cutting, but bolt cutters and a chain across a workshop door – I put the case across not for them just to make stuff, but to change the world.
We’ve innovated here and done it before and there’s no reason why the next world changing invention couldn’t come from Oldham once again.
But I also started to ponder something else that day. Are we (Oldham Council) ready for a new town centre community?
Are we ready to allow others to put their own mark and personality on an area that has previously been slightly ‘off the shelf’?
I say that because I’ve been around long enough to know that when councils commission creative types it is invariably an expensive project and – although artists will attempt to interpret Oldham – unless they live and breathe the borough it will never ‘be’ Oldham.
With the Independent Quarter fast beginning to take shape after more than year of hard ground work from our staff, we are now seeing a real community developing of mainly borough residents who believe in the place, have a great deal to offer and want to play their part.
A stroll through Manchester’s Northern Quarter reveals not a crisp modern city, but an individual character formed by those who have adopted it.
The use of the buildings, the type and feel of the restaurants and quirky urban art creates a real sense of place – but it certainly couldn’t be described as clean and crisp.
With the potential not to recreate the Northern Quarter here – but something from and of Oldham – these are exciting times for the Yorkshire Street area and its emerging community.
I believe we need to think hard about how much are willing to allow it to develop its own personality organically – rather than picking out a showroom from an urban design catalogue.
I can tell you that’s a real leap of faith, but one which could pay dividends.
Thanks for listening,