Opinion: ‘Bet on the future, forget the past’

Councillor Shaz Nawaz, Labour Group leader on Peterborough City Council, writes...

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 8th August 2021, 3:05 pm

I was pleased to read that the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority has secured £1.8 million to build up digital skills in our area.

I have no doubt that our recently elected mayor, Dr Nik Johnson, will put it to good use: the money will be utilised in Skills Bootcamps which offer flexible courses of up to 16 weeks.

We need more digital literacy; this is a nationwide problem.

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The coronavirus and the ensuing lockdowns caused a marked acceleration in existing trends: people were increasingly willing to buy their shopping online. Work is following the individual rather than is tied to a location. Broadband and mobile phone services mean that commerce and business can happen anywhere.

This has had some immediate consequences: house prices shooting up in out-of-city areas is one of them. Apparently, when given a choice, at least some people prefer to keep the city at arm’s length.

However, some of the effects of change will be very painful, in particular for the retail sector. I was not entirely surprised to learn that Disney is shutting its Queensgate store. This follows on from a number of
retail closures.

I am concerned there aren’t enough like-for-like jobs being generated to cover those being lost, and not everyone can work for Amazon. So, what do we do?

In the face of undeniable change, an absence of strategy is not just a failure, it’s an indictment. The Conservative group has been in power for over 20 years. In the past 20 years we’ve seen broadband expand its capacity, the smartphone become an essential tool, and online shopping become ever more prevalent.

Netflix and other services stream the latest films onto high-definition screens. We are all becoming ever more woven into the fabric of the world wide web.

Twenty years is long enough to spot a trend and adjust. While fast broadband has been installed in much of the city, the administration simultaneously bet on having more retail and hospitality space as a source of tax revenue. It apparently didn’t occur to them that the latter might be affected by the former.

The question is, why?

A lot of politicians, even Conservative ones, have mobile phones and are experienced users of technology; why couldn’t they look at their own patterns of shopping, working and living and realise that the same old formulae were not going to achieve the desired results? It’s as if they have been caught by surprise: they should not have been.

They should be calling for more digital skills initiatives and leverage our broadband access to build up the digital economy. Not every start-up that begins in Peterborough will be a raging success; not every business in general is like that either. The point is to give business a fighting chance to succeed.

In other words, it’s worth placing a safe and calculated bet on the future, rather than sinking any further cash on the past.

There is much more that could be done; an adaptation strategy should be being implemented now.

When there is a change of administration, the Labour Group is ready to make it happen.