It has been a very difficult few weeks.
One of my constituents, Keith (known to all as ‘Pepsi’ on the Queens Park Estate), died on the 23rd February, having suffered with cancer.
A few days later, my close friend and colleague, Cllr Mary Smith died following a long illness.
Last week, a neighbour of mine died from an asbestos-related illness, followed less than 48 hours later by Conservative Councillor for Marton Ward, Major Jim Houldsworth.
The day after Jim’s death, I visited another dear and longstanding friend (Joe, the husband of former Councillor Pat Carrington) in Trinity Hospice, who sadly will not be returning home.
To lose this many friends in such a short space of time causes a pause for reflection, and to examine what it is about them that made them so special, and how life will be different without them here.
‘Pepsi’ was a mainstay of the community up in QueensPark, always ready to voice his opinion – and it was always a considered and balanced opinion, always ready to help a neighbour, and renowned for his robust sense of humour and friendly manner.
Mary Smith and I served together as councillors for Bloomfield between 2003-2007, and she went on to serve as Mayor of the Borough. With the dedicated support of her daughter, Julia, she had a fantastic year as Mayor, which brought her 20 years of service on the council to a great crescendo.
Her commitment to the residents of her area was unrivalled; she had a clear sense of right and wrong, and was never frightened to let people know when she disagreed with them!
Jim was one of an increasingly rare breed of true gentlemen, the type of person we would all aspire to be, and was a giant within Blackpool.
He and I were elected on the same night in 2003, and I have greatly enjoyed working with him, and sparring with him over the past nine years.
His dedication and commitment to his constituents and the people of Blackpoolwent without question, and he was not beyond breaking ranks with his political masters when he felt it necessary to do so. His work with, and commitment to the welfare of servicemen, past and present, earned him the Blackpool Medal, which I was delighted to present him with in January.
Joe, along with his wife, Pat, are amongst my most longstanding political friends. His intellect, vast knowledge-bank, bone dry sense of humour (even faced with terminal illness), and unique view on politics and life is something that I shall miss beyond measure.
The way in which his family have adapted to his illness, and made him the very centre of their lives for the past few months has been an inspiration – as has the commitment and dedication of staff at the Trinity Hospice, who have been superb (even when they mistook me for a vicar the other day, presumably based on the number of visits I have made in recent weeks).
I promised Mary’s family that we would make sure her legacy was preserved, and that her fighting spirit and dedication to her constituents would be something that we would all strive to mirror.
I have let Jim’s family know that I consider the best way to further honour him, to be to continue with our close ties with veterans’ organisations, and continue to do that job in a way which would make him proud.
As we move forward, the good humour, basic human kindness and friendship shown by ‘Pepsi’ and Joe will stand us in good stead.
The compassion and dedication shown by their friends and family, and by NHS staff towards the end of their lives, also reminds us of our instinctive human commitment to want to help one another, and relieve pain and suffering.
Death causes us to reflect on our own lives and our own priorities in life. All of the people I have mentioned would have shown a great interest in our Child Poverty Conference at the Winter Gardens, which we held last Friday, had they been able to be there.
Closely linked to our agenda around fairness, the framework we are developing to tackle child poverty will involve agencies far beyond the Council. Representatives from charities, the community and voluntary sectors, the Police, the local NHS and others came along to emphasise their commitment and willingness to contribute to improving outcomes for Children and Young People inBlackpool.
I left the conference considering a vitally important, but not uncontroversial view, which I feel is central to how we tackle the twin issues of poverty and fairness.
Blackpool has some great schools, at both primary and secondary levels. Blackpool has some good post-compulsory education, delivered by the Sixth Form, and Blackpool & the Fylde College, amongst others.
Blackpool’s educational attainment is much better than it was a decade ago, and a lot of good teachers have worked very hard to achieve that, as have our head teachers and support staff, both in schools and at Progress House.
Sadly however, and this was the message I left them with, despite the great improvements that have been made, the simple fact of the matter is that outcomes for our children are still not good enough.
Too many of our children leave school with poor levels of literacy and numeracy, poor formal qualifications, and little in the way of aspiration or direction. I am NOT blaming schools for this – parents, families, the council, schools, the Government, me (and you) and children themselves all have a role to play in making sure that society is turning out well-rounded, educated and confident students – but what I am saying is that we cannot as a town continue to accept moderate incremental improvements in outcomes for children.
Yes, things are better than they were, but they are not good enough.
How we tackle these issues, together, will inform whether or not Blackpool’s issues around unemployment, poor qualifications, skills gaps, low wages and poverty are still as big an issue in 20 years time as they are today.
What greater tribute could there be to those who have gone before, than to ensure that future generations achieve more, enjoy greater prosperity, better life-chances and better health than our generation has?
That’s a challenge, and one to which we must rise.