All change

11 March 2020

‘I’m irritatingly positive. It comes from being in Greater Manchester surrounded by leaders who want to make the city region the best place to grow up and grow older. It’s not just a strapline, we are working together to make it happen.’

In the two-and-a-half years or so since Pam Smith became chief executive of Stockport Council she’s done her utmost to ensure her part of the conurbation plays its part in turning that vision into reality.

Greater Manchester’s third biggest economy – worth £6.4bn – has got enviable transport links – for example, some 294 trains pass through Stockport every day, it’s just 15 minutes from Manchester Airport and eight minutes from the city centre.

Now Stockport Council and its partners are creating a place that makes the most of that connectivity.

The physical signs of change have been taking shape for some time as part of £1bn of investment focused on building on the borough’s strengths as a well-connected business hub and creating a multi-functional town centre for all ages.

The former can be seen in the award-winning Stockport Exchange, grade A office space near the train station – a prime example of the council’s role as ‘a positive disruptor’ in the market – which was fully let just six months after completion.

The latter, a reflection of the council’s all-age living strategy, helped the town win a Purple Flag award in 2019 for the quality and safety of its night-time economy.

‘Global cities like Manchester need world class towns around them and we are a world class town,’ says Pam. ‘We are complementary to our city but we are also agile and able to innovate and lead the way and be on the front foot of changing things that matter to our residents.’

That innovation can be seen in the town’s Mayoral Development Corporation (MDC), an independent body set up last year as the first initiative of its kind in the country to focus on town entre regeneration. The goal is to turn the heart of Stockport into ‘Greater Manchester’s newest, coolest and greenest urban neighbourhood’.

The MDC will work with the council to build 3,500 homes along with one million square feet of employment space plus the social and green infrastructure needed to support a very different kind of town centre.

‘Nationally, we’re leading the change in how we are refocusing our town centre,’ says Pam. ‘It’s about having community and culture at the heart of it alongside retail. We now run events every week in the centre of Stockport, we’re creating a community hub and attracting families, teenagers, older people because it’s an all-age offer.’

Environment for success

The strapline for the town’s regeneration is ‘Stockport. Change here.’ But it’s not just the town that’s evolving.

Last year the council won the The MJ’s Digital Transformation award for the way it has transformed the way in which it interacts with customers through a design-led approach and person-centred design that gives people ‘the Amazon service’. It’s about highly accessible, responsive services. For example, the time it takes to register for council tax has been cut from up to seven weeks to just a day.

That public-facing transformation is mirrored within the organisation.

‘I think the big difference is our ability to adapt to change and to change at pace. We have an agile way of working here. You only get that if you have the right environment and if you pay attention to the evidence and listen to your residents.’

Technology is very much at the forefront, whether it’s finding new ways to gather and utilise intelligence – the council has just recruited its first data scientist – or piloting wearable devices to help older people maintain their independence.

In a fast-paced environment like Stockport’s it would be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. The council doesn’t innovate for innovation’s sake, says Pam, it has to be linked to finding solutions for real problems.

The authority has embraced a set of values based around serving residents, teamwork, respect and ambition. Developed by staff across the organisation over the last 18 months, they act as a reminder of what they’re all there for.

‘It’s about staff feeling some autonomy to make decisions that are underpinned by these values. The environment here is innovative and it’s an exciting place to work. I have got a super-talented team who are delivering for residents. The values and the frameworks we have in place are enabling them to do that.

‘If you are curious, focused on public service, want to make a difference and be part of a dynamic team, this is the place to be!’

Taking the helm at Stockport has proved to be a smart move for Pam in a local government career spanning more than 30 years that’s taken in Burnley, Bury, Oldham and Rochdale Councils, the Audit Commission and the private sector.

Being part of the Greater Manchester city region is all-important, Pam admits. Where else would you get 10 local authorities working closely together, lobbying Government with one voice and using their economies of scale to test out new ideas?

‘I work in the south of Greater Manchester but live in the north. I see how working collaboratively across the conurbation brings benefits and enables us to pilot things because we work together.

‘I want the whole conurbation to be successful. I think we are building wealth across the conurbation and if we play to each other’s strengths then we all win.’

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