Firstly, welcome to the Leader’s Blog! You will be relieved to know that after my well publicised problems with Facebook earlier in the year, I’m not actually allowed to write on here directly – I have to email what I want to say to someone responsible, who vets it, and then posts it up as long as I haven’t said anything daft….
It has taken a bit longer to get the blog up and running than I would have liked – which is entirely my fault. You will all have noticed that there have been some fairly big changes at the Town Hall end of the operation since the elections in May.
Senior Management reductions had to happen – not because people weren’t doing a good job – far from it – but because councils up and down the UK are facing a huge and (sadly) probably irreversible cut in their funding over the next 3 years. It simply wasn’t realistic to expect people earning at the lower end of the income scale to keep taking the pain. As staff numbers fall, and middle manager numbers fall, it is only fair for the number of Directors and Executive Directors to fall as well. The changes we made to the top structure will deliver savings of £1.8 million over the next four years.
For the same reason, elected members have taken a pay cut. We refused to take the rise that was being offered to us, freezing our basic allowance at £5,998.98 per year. We have also torn up the rule which meant our allowances were pegged to inflation (so they went up automatically every year, no matter how bad the financial circumstances). Now we have pegged our allowances to the NJC pay scale – so if staff get 2%, we get 2% – if staff get nothing, neither do we.
My colleagues and I felt we wanted to go further and have all taken a 5% cut in our Special Responsibility Allowances, these are paid to Councillors who have specific roles, ranging from Vice Chairs of Committees – who now receive £2,137 a year (down from £2,250) – through to the Leader of the Council who now receives £19,948 (down from £20,998).
We also decided that for the first time, senior councillors should do what staff have to and therefore senior councillors now pay 1% of their allowances for their car-parking permit. We also slashed our mileage rate from 62p per mile to 40p and have banned first class travel for councillors – a perk which we felt was well past its sell by date.
In addition to this, we abolished a considerable number of positions – Cabinet Assistants, Overview and Scrutiny Chairs and Vice Chairs have all been done away with. Taken together, these changes deliver a net saving of over £200,000 over the next four years – money which can instead be spent on front line services and protecting front line jobs.
We’ve also got a new Chief Executive. Steve Weaver was a fantastic servant to both the people of Blackpool and the staff of Blackpool Council – we owe him a great deal. He, however, decided the time was right for him to retire from the council and I thank him for his service.
Opting not to spend tens of thousands of pounds using expensive recruitment consultants, we advertised the post in our own website and on the regional site, ‘Your Council Jobs’. This in itself attracted national attention as we knew it would and we had a fantastically talented pool of candidates from across the country and in the end had no problem at all in making the superb appointment of Neil Jack.
I have worked closely with Neil during his tenure as Director of Finance for Blackpool Coastal Housing and know that he has a fantastic insight into the worlds of housing and local government finance – two areas which are a top priority for the council.
We are reversing the decision taken by the previous administration to close Boundary Library (using some of the money saved by the above measures) and Grange Park councillors are busy investing their ward budgets in new books and IT equipment. Bucking recent trends, usage figures at the library are UP, not down. There is a real sense of ownership amongst the local community, having seen their library threatened with closure, they’re embracing it like never before.
We’re hoping to do the same for Mereside Library as well – watch this space.
Working with Trade Unions, we’ve also saved Hoyle House – and the jobs that were at risk, ensuring that vital rehabilitation services will continue to be delivered to the most vulnerable.
You’ll have noticed a great deal of media activity around the issue of Child Poverty. There are two ways that politicians can deal with stuff like this – you can gloss over it, be precious about our image as a holiday destination, and try to play down the issue – or you can be clear about the scale of the problem and clear about what you intend to do to tackle it.
Incredibly, this Council has not had either a transience strategy or a child poverty strategy – despite me and my fellow Labour councillors banging on about it for the last 4 years. Now we’re able to do this.
Both areas are currently under great scrutiny, and I have a team of highly experienced councillors and officers working towards drawing up these two vital documents – the starting point for what has to be a ruthless war on want and poverty in Blackpool.
I believe that at least 30% of the children in our town are living in relative poverty -the figure may be even higher – a shocking state of affairs in a place like Britain.
We’ll shortly announce details of our plan to work with the local community, faith groups and charities to try and do something practical and meaningful now, to help make a difference to these children’s’ lives this Christmas.
I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible in the near future, both Blackpool Council staff and local residents. I want to set out to you what I believe our priorities for the next four years should be – to see if you agree, and to understand how best you think that the Chief Exec and I can facilitate the improvements and progress that I know we all want to see.
Blackpool’s Fairness Commission will be launched in the New Year – which I am determined will be a lasting legacy which makes clear our determination to ensure fairness in everything we do, with nobody left behind.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for the hard work and dedication I see around me every day. I feel very proud to lead an organisation which is blessed with so many talented, committed and innovative people – I never have to stop and worry whether what we want to achieve is too ambitious or too intricate.
I’m always confident that as long as our staff understand what we are trying to do, they will make sure the job gets done, and done well.
I also appreciate the excellent work done in Blackpool by other public organisations like our brilliant schools, the Police, the PCT and the Hospital Trust as well as some of the truly innovative and inspiring work that the voluntary sector does. Not to forget as well the amazing contributions of individuals who I meet who just want to make a difference, help a neighbour.
Cllr Simon Blackburn