Back to hard work after the election

The General Election is over, and we can finally get back to business.  For a ‘snap’ election, it certainly seemed to last a while.

I want to thank all those who put themselves forward for election, and especially our two MPs, Gordon Marsden and Paul Maynard – I look forward to working with them both.

The importance of our democratic process was underlined by the nation’s response to the four terrorist attacks at Westminster, Manchester, Tower Bridge and Finsbury Park.  Too many times recently we have lowered the flag over the Town Hall, darkened, and then illuminated the Tower in the colours of the Union flag, and held periods of silence on the Town Hall steps, as people from all over the UK signed our Books of Condolence.

The loss of one of our one, Jane Tweddle, a receptionist at South Shore Academy, the injuries caused to other Blackpudlians, and the deaths of other fellow Lancastrians, brought home to many people the fact that the country is engaged in a serious battle with extremism – and that we all have a role to play in fighting that battle.

As part of my national role with the Local Government Association I lead on counter extremism work on behalf of all councils in England & Wales.

I meet regularly with Ministers and Civil Servants, to discuss what is happening, and more can be done.  Prior to the election being called, the Government was already planning to relaunch its counter extremism strategy, and I will continue to work with Ministers and Councils, to make sure that this strategy is as robust as possible.

Alongside this work, we need the public to be alert – thirteen planned attacks on the UK have been stopped by police and security services since 2013 – in many instances, based on members of the public reporting their concerns.  If you have any concerns, or have information you think would be valuable, please call the UK Anti-Terrorist hotline on 0800 789 321.

On top of these attacks, the disastrous fire at Grenfell Tower was a sobering one for all of us to see and my thoughts are with all of the families of the victims whose lives have been torn apart. Again, we remembered those victims on the town hall steps this week, and have opened a separate book of condolence.

The public have demonstrated that they expect to see strong, empathetic and visible leadership from both the Government and from councils, when tragedies such as this occur.

As well as reviewing the fire safety arrangements and evacuation advice in our social housing here in Blackpool, we are working on what more we can do to support the Fire & Rescue service, to identify private sector premises (be they blocks of flats, houses in multiple occupancy or hotels) where there may be a greater risk of fire, more vulnerable residents, or complications in evacuation procedures.

The Chief Executive and I are also reviewing our emergency response and disaster recovery plans, to make sure that we are fully prepared for all eventualities.

Exciting times ahead for Blackpool businesses

As you are reading this latest blog, the council has just recently agreed its budget for another year. Over the last six years, cuts to the grant which the Government gives us to run vital services like social care, bin collections and parks maintenance have reached over £118m (a cumulative impact of £440m), and this year we are having to make another £18.7m worth of reductions or closures to the services that we deliver to you day in, day out.

The continuous reduction in the Government grant is the reality that is being faced by councils all across the country and their approach isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Yes, I expect our grant to be cut by a smaller amount next year, but that is still likely to take £3m-4m away from services which have already been cut to the bone.

So the only way that we can continue to protect those services that you value is to stop relying on central Government grants and start growing our own income.

The best way of doing that is to invest in Blackpool – in our businesses and in our people. As a Council, we have the ability to borrow money at a lower interest rate than others, which can then be lent out to support companies to build, grow and hire.

We are already doing that across Blackpool. Investment in the tramway extension will not only improve the town, but it will increase ticket sales that provide a receipt to the council. Investing in a new hotel in the Talbot Gateway will also improve the town, creating better options for businesses, bringing more local people in to employment and providing another return for the council that can also help protect services. You can read more about the exciting projects starting in Blackpool this year in the latest edition of Your Blackpool.

Actually, the potential for business to boom in Blackpool in the next few years is absolutely huge. A trio of cheap business rates, a prospering enterprise zone and a £100m loan fund means that all the tools are in place for businesses on the Fylde coast to not only compete but to thrive.

From April, changes to business rate valuations will reduce the rates for businesses throughout Blackpool, while extra small business rate relief will allow growing companies to flourish and we expect 3,000 companies to be exempt from business rates completely.

Add the introduction of the Enterprise Zone at Blackpool Airport – which has already created 400 jobs – to the pot and companies relocating to Blackpool could be eligible for up to £275,000 worth of rate relief over a five year period as well as enhanced allowances for them to invest in fixed plant and machinery.

We are also helping businesses to expand and be successful through our own £100m New Loan Fund, which can be given out to companies willing to hire more local employees. That support is already helping businesses to grow. Take Laila’s Fine Foods in Bispham, for example. They have benefitted from two of our loans already, helping them to build a new warehouse, increase their factory to 90,000 square feet, increase their turnover to £36m a year and hire over 300 local people.

These loans will not only help companies to expand, but the repayments will help support our own budget and maintain our services.

For thousands of Blackpool businesses, this trio of business incentives means that they will have more spare money to spend on investing and growing their company. That could equate to thousands of pounds spent on hiring new workers, expanding their offices or investing in new machinery to take on extra work.

For businesses operating in the south of the country where rates and costs are continuing to rise, the benefits of moving to the Fylde coast could be even bigger.

The potential for future investment in Blackpool is exceptionally high. We already have corporations champing at the bit to invest in Blackpool this year and I am really looking forward to seeing the benefits that can bring to local people over the next few years.

This investment, along with our own, is absolutely crucial to create jobs, to boost visitor numbers, boost the local economy, and secure income for future generations.

 

We must invest our way out of cuts

For six years now we have been faced with having to save tens of millions of pounds from the council’s budget.

It was a near impossible task to begin with but gets harder and harder every year.

Taking money out of services, or increasing charges, isn’t what any of us got involved with local government or politics for and I, for one, am sick of it.

The Government’s saving target for us this year is £18m. That number is almost too large to comprehend, particularly when you add it to over £100m that we have already had to find in the past.

In previous years we have tried to protect the services that you access, but there has undoubtedly been an effect. Like you, I live in Blackpool too, and have felt the differences like everybody else.

Services have suffered in the past, but this year we have tried to protect them as much as possible. At the rate that money is being saved, the only way that this council will survive is by being entrepreneurial, investing in our people and businesses and in turn generating our own income, instead of relying on the Government’s ever decreasing grants.

Over the next three years we will be looking at the possibility of transferring existing council services into wholly owned companies. There are financial benefits to establishing these companies and this in turn protects the services that we know are important to the residents of Blackpool but don’t have a secure future under the current funding arrangements.

We are also proposing to invest £17.5 million to fund the development of a hotel on the Wilko’s site.

As a Council, we have the ability to borrow money at a lower interest rate than others. We need to take this opportunity and use it to our advantage, both to help businesses in the town to expand but to guarantee the council an income, and potentially even a budget surplus, year in, year out.

The new tramway extension will do this, as will the conference centre at the Winter Gardens, as would new high-end hotels, as would new retail, leisure and tourism facilities, as would improved transport links.

This investment is absolutely crucial to create jobs, to boost visitor numbers, boost the economy, and secure income for future generations.

By doing this, we will help to secure the future of vital services, as well as getting more people into work and improving the town as a whole so that it can stand on its own two feet in the future.

The next few years will be a tough period, but hopefully the level of investment will make sure that it also is a positive and exciting one for the town.

New deal full of eastern promise

We were approached by the Chinese Consulate in Manchester just over three years ago, who asked if we would consider working more closely with the City of Sanya, which is in Hainan Province, in Southern China.

Now we all know that China is already seriously important in terms of financial clout – it’s the second biggest economy in the world, and although growth has slowed recently, it has slowed to around 7% – a rate of growth that we in the West can only dream of!

Our local Chinese community here in Blackpool make a huge contribution to the town.  Peter Lui and Danny Hui of the Blackpool Chinese Community Association were very keen for us to pursue this opportunity, so we invited Sanya to come over here and see us.

I was very impressed with their current list of sister-cities (which includes Cannes, Cancun and Hollywood!), and with their plans to look at how our tourism and leisure expertise could assist them, whilst their experience of levering in private investment could help us.  Just to give you an idea of the scale of the place, they’ve got 75 five-star hotels.

When I visited earlier this year, and attended a number of different events and installations – I was particularly impressed by the International School in Sanya – and the Mayor of Sanya talked about the potential for Chinese students to experience the British hospitality industry as part of their studies.

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Signing the sister city agreement with Executive Vice-Mayor of Sanya, Mr Yue Jin.

As well as meeting with Government officials – from both the UK and China, and potential investors in Hong Kong – we saw huge opportunities to tap in to new markets and new ways of thinking.

 

The UK Government is hugely supportive of expanding Sino-British links, and it was encouraging to hear our new Prime Minister recognising the importance of China to the UK, in her recent visit to the G20 summit in Hangzhou.

An early “win”, if you like, of our involvement, was the signing of a deal worth £500,000 deal to use Blackpool’s name in promoting Ballroom Dance in China and the Far East – and a deal has now been reached with Thomas Cook, to promote links between the two regions.

We need to look increasingly further afield for investment and new ideas – if we are to truly deliver on our town’s motto of “Progress”.

 

Maximising growth and creating jobs

With the Government targeting Blackpool this year with the harshest cuts in the country, it is more important than ever that we are doing everything we can to maximise growth and create jobs.

Tourism is an integral part of our economy. In our budget, despite unprecedented pressure, we have maintained the council’s support for the illuminations, which are estimated to bring in around £250 million a year. Following a council-led marketing campaign promoting our many attractions, we saw a huge increase in visitor numbers last year. Our essential work on the Tower, our most iconic attraction is now complete, and the restoration of the Winter Gardens continues apace.

But we can’t rest on our laurels. I was delighted to see Blackpool receive its first ever Blue Flag – which means we’ve got a beach that ranks alongside the cleanest in the UK. Just after I became council leader, we were warned that our water quality was so poor we’d have to put up signs telling people to stay out of the water, but after years of work from our staff, the fantastic efforts of local volunteers and United Utilities we have now met stringent standards that give us the Blue Flag. We are now working on our Keep Blackpool Tidy campaign, to make Blackpool the cleanest seaside town in the country by 2020 and help reinforce our place as the UK’s top family resort.

We’re also expanding the local economy – regenerating the town centre and developing the Squires Gate enterprise zone. In the town centre we are developing both a new business district and opportunities for cultural tourism that will bring better paid jobs into the area. The enterprise zone will bring up to 3,000 jobs, ranging from manufacturing to office work, to the area – this will seize upon the Fylde Coast’s unique opportunities in the energy industry including renewables and off-shore oil and gas.

Better and more integrated transport is also vital for growth. That is why we are planning to extend the tramway to Blackpool North station, as well as working on proposals for a link to the Blackpool South rail line, by securing a passing loop to allow more than one train per hour on the line. We are also investing money in Blackpool Transport to upgrade our buses. The deal is a sensible and prudent investment in Blackpool Transport to allow them to reduce their maintenance and fuel costs with newer vehicles, giving passengers more comfortable, greener vehicles with facilities such as wi-fi, improved ridership which will in turn create more jobs.

Budget proposals 2016/17

Blackpool Council has today announced proposals to achieve £9 million savings to council services in the next financial year, 2016/17, with another £11 million still to be found from corporate measures.

It is expected to result in 200 job losses with an additional 50 posts ending.

Council Leader Simon Blackburn has blogged about his thoughts on the budget announcement below.

This is the fifth time that I have had to announce multi-million pound cuts and hundreds of job losses. It is the day of the year that I dread and it certainly does not get any easier with time.

Today we present to the public how we think £9 million can be saved from the services that they receive each and every day. Services that they rely on, services that care for their children and families, and services that make a difference to the area in which they live and work.

During the summer we asked Blackpool residents to have their say and let us know how they would make savings. Many people commented how difficult an exercise it was and in fact many declared it impossible. That is how we feel every year when we look at every penny the council spends and how it can be reduced.

We have used the views of residents and businesses when formulating our proposals, for example protecting Street Cleansing and retaining all eight of the Council’s libraries.

There are also areas that we know cannot cope with any further cuts and they will be protected.

Our difficult decision earlier this year to close the SureStart-attached nurseries has allowed us to keep open all of the Sure Start Centres and Children’s Centres.

But there are no easy solutions – many services will be affected by these cuts.

At this stage we have not received our settlement from the Government so we do not know the exact amount that we need to save but we are working on the basis that it will be £20 million. Blackpool has been one of the hardest hit councils in the country, being forced to make £93 million of cuts since 2010.

A lot of staff will be facing an uncertain future as a result of today’s news. It marks the start of an upsetting time for them and their families and they face losing their income. For those that aren’t at risk they will be asked to commit to taking more unpaid leave and delivering services with less money and fewer team members to help them.

It is a difficult day for all concerned but our commitment to providing quality services to people of Blackpool remains the same. We will make it work because we have to.

“Blackpool will welcome Syrian refugees”

As I write this, the issue uppermost in most people’s minds is the global refugee crisis.

Both the UK and Blackpool have a long, proud tradition of helping those most in need – Blackpool having welcomed Polish migrants in the 1940s, Hungarians in the 1950s, and Kosovans in the 1990s.

The current focus is on people in Calais, and people fleeing Syria.  But the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees states that at the end of 2014, there were almost 20 million people, or an average of 42,500 people per day forced to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere.

Syria is of course not the only nation in crisis – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Palestine, Eritrea, Mali, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Yemen – to name but a few all have displaced peoples who are in desperate need.

But for now, the presenting issue is Syria.

The Prime Minister has committed to taking 20,000 Syrian refugees.  I am meeting with the Shadow Home Secretary tomorrow, with the Home Office Security Minister next week, and have been having conversations with local government leaders from across the UK over the past fortnight.

I have also spoken with colleagues at the council, constituents, friends and others, as well as keeping one eye on how the media is reporting the crisis.  As in any situation, opinions vary – but generally speaking people are overwhelmingly positive about the idea of us helping out in any way we can.

Of course there are those who feel that “charity should begin at home” and that we should “sort our own problems out first” and I try to understand that view.  Blackpool has huge problems, which we are striving to address – but we cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the world.

We must accept that – however bad our problems may be locally – these people who are fleeing Syria are infinitely worse off than we are – almost all of us have food enough to eat, shelter and warmth – they have nothing.

Given the thousands of (often very troubled) people from within the UK who turn up in Blackpool every year, with little more than the shirt on their back, I think we can find it within our hearts and wallets, to take just a handful more.

So, we will be working hard over the coming days and weeks to work out a plan for how could meet the housing, health, education and other needs of refugees, to try and ensure that they feel welcomed, and a valued part of our community.

I am confident that the people of Blackpool will play their part in this effort, and that (aside from the dozen or so people whom I already know will send me hate mail for daring to suggest we might welcome a few refugees from far-flung shores), we will offer them a welcome which reflects Blackpool’s world famous reputation for hospitality, and our basic human instinct to protect those less fortunate than ourselves.