Revitalising Blackpool – the first step

Following my open letter/last blog post last week, I am very pleased to announce our first new policy in response to the problems I outlined.

Subject to approval by the Executive next week, as of January 2013, all children attending Blackpool Primary schools will be offered a free breakfast and free milk at mid-morning break.

This is a bold and ambitious move, but one which is founded entirely in fact, and one which research clearly demonstrates will be of huge benefit to children across the Borough. 

At the moment, some schools run breakfast clubs, which are paid for by parents – usually those in work – as a consequence, the uptake is nowhere near as good as we would like.  We now plan to make this service universally available, and hope that all schools and the majority of parents will take advantage of it.

Despite our superb schools, excellent teachers and committed support and catering staff, and the best efforts of the majority of parents – Blackpool still has a big problem with attendance, attainment and behaviour in the classroom. 

Daily we see and hear of children attending school who quite clearly haven’t had breakfast, and are not therefore able to learn.  Under-nourishment is a real problem here in Blackpool, as one would expect in an area beset by high levels of child poverty. 

A recent survey of schoolchildren suggests that some of our older pupils are more likely to have used alcohol or tobacco in the last week than they are to have eaten breakfast or had 5 portions of fruit and veg a day.
 
For years, we have complained about this – but now is the time to actually do something about it. 

All of the evidence points towards the provision of school breakfasts improving attendance, attainment and behaviour – in some cases quite dramatically.  It will ensure children start the day in the right way, it will encourage them to continue the good habit of eating a balanced breakfast for the rest of their lives, it will provide an extra reason to be at school on time, and in 10 years time, we will see dramatically improved educational outcomes as a consequence.
 
Those parents in work who are currently struggling to find £10 or £15 a week to pay for Breakfast Clubs, will now be able to spend that money in other ways – further stimulating the local economy.  The same goes for those low-paid parents who are currently spending £10 a week on cereals, bread and fruit for breakfast. 

Whilst those on benefits usually receive free milk at break times already, I want to see working parents, and people just above the benefit cut-off point, released from the burden of the £10-£15 per term, per child, they are currently charged for milk.
 
Although the obvious beneficiaries of this scheme are those children whose parents are not currently feeding them properly, it will also create jobs, and pour the money that would otherwise be spent on breakfasts directly into the local economy – this is what fairness is all about – a policy which protects the worst off in society, whilst also putting money back in the pockets of those who work hard and do the right thing.
 
Although this is a pilot scheme in primary schools only, I hope and believe that it will soon become part of a joined-up strategy on school meals and nutrition, which we have been working on for some time, which will benefit all of the school-children in Blackpool, schools, teachers, parents, and the wider local economy.
 
By robustly prioritising our budget, and setting out prudent financial plans for the next 3 years, we are able to offer this scheme without placing any additional burden on the Council Tax fund or the Council Tax payer. 

In addition to resources already allocated, we shall also be working with potential sponsors to deliver the scheme as efficiently as possible.
 
Finally, on the subject of my last blog, I will shortly be announcing the appointment of a “Revitalising Blackpool” Task Force of residents, community activists, public, private and third sector representatives, to tackle the issues raised, and the many hundreds of responses received. 

Thank you all for your contributions, the vast majority of which were positive and supportive, and will be invaluable in helping us tackle the problems I outlined.

SHB

‘999:What’s Your Emergency’ and how we can tackle Blackpool’s social problems

Two events have drawn me to the same conclusion recently.

Firstly, there has been the ‘999 – What’s your emergency’ program on Channel 4, and the subsequent heated debate.  Secondly, my car broke down.  Seemingly unconnected, I know, but bear with me. 

I live in Blackpool (just off Preston New Road), two of my three children were born in the Vic, and all three attend Blackpool schools.  I work part-time for a small local charity just off Lytham Road. 

Now nearly 40, I occasionally make it to the Blue Room (and even more occasionally, The Tache), but for many years, whilst working for the Pleasure Beach, at the De Vere, at the Waxworks etc., I was a fairly frequent visitor to the town centre to sample the pleasures of our night-time economy.  I’ve lived in a variety of bedsits, flats and houses in both North and South Blackpool, and have represented both Bloomfield and Brunswick. 

I know my patch – or I thought I did.

I didn’t really pay a great deal of attention to the Channel 4 stuff at first (Council Leaders don’t have much time for TV) – other than meeting with the Police and expressing the view that they should have consulted with us before embarking on this particular course – a point they accept. 

However, as the episodes went by, the debate sharpened, and my friends’ accounts of what they had watched grew ever more lurid, I thought I ought to take a look.

Some of you may recall that in 2004 (I think), I was attacked in the street by some local charmers – more bruised pride than anything else.  We were burgled in 2000, and again in 2005. 

I’ve had my car stolen (they got it about 300 yards down the road before deciding it was that awful they’d rather walk) – but on all four occasions, I remember feeling that I was a victim of crime, and as my colleague Cllr. Eddie Collett points out, whatever the statistics show, whether there is a 2% decrease in reported crime or not, when you’re the victim of a crime, you are 100% a victim of crime.

Now television packs hundreds of hours of filming into bite-sized, dramatic chunks.  The accumulated pain and misery of many months has been distilled into a few hours of actual “action”.  But it’s not pretty is it? 

Some people wanted me to make grand press announcements about the fact that “Blackpool isn’t really like that”, but I demurred. 

The simple fact of the matter is that in some parts of Blackpool, it is more than a bit like that – in other parts it is very much like that – and that pain and misery can be both terrifying and oppressive at the same time.

Blackpool’s population hasn’t changed much over the past decade – in terms of headline figures at least – but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed. 

There are more people out of work now than 10 years ago, more people of long-term benefits, a worse public health outlook, more poverty and little, if any improvement in alcohol and drug fuelled violence, disorder and anti-social behaviour.

My car having broken down has given me another window on these issues.  I now walk, take the bus, take the tram (or if the weather is simply too awful for any of the above, get a taxi). 

This means that I stray from my usual routes (we all have them don’t we) – so I find myself going through Mereside at 11pm, through Grange Park at 8am, along Central Drive at 2am in a cab. 

Not only are you able to watch things more intently as a passenger than you are as a driver, but you also have the company of other pedestrians, bus or tram users, or the views of your taxi driver for company – the sights and sounds I am now liberated to focus on are somewhat different to driving down Whitegate Drive or the Prom, listening to the radio and concentrating on the road ahead.

I am forced to wonder therefore, at what point we accepted that Blackpool was going to become a refuge for the dispossessed and the never-possessed? 

When did we simply accept that if people turned up here with both profound and enduring criminal records, major social problems, housing issues or poverty issues, we would scoop them up into our bosom and seek to fix them?

Any society can (and absolutely should) cope with some people who are criminal, some people who are out of work through circumstances, some who are sick, some who are just plain idle, and others who need a wide variety of other help and support.

It becomes an issue though when we are fuelling a culture of dependency on the state (a dependency that we are struggling to afford now, never mind in another 10 years time). 

How much longer can we run around after people fixing their problems because we are frightened that nobody else will do it?  Do we need a bit more stick and a bit less carrot? 

Would that allow us to focus our resources on those people who are vulnerable and poor BUT who want to help themselves to change, and want to be part of mainstream civic society? 

Before people start, I am not talking about the deserving versus the undeserving poor.  What I am saying however is that there comes a point whereby after a wide variety of interventions and attempts to support people, we cannot usefully continue to seek to spend our way to happiness (even if we could afford it, and we can’t).

A colleague spoke to me the other day about the notion of developing a suite of policies to try and manage this situation.  Essentially, we’d be saying that Blackpool is full, and that if people are planning on moving here, they need to think long and hard about securing accommodation, a job, and means of entertaining themselves that do no negatively impact on the wider community. 

At the same time, we would continue to pursue policies such as selective licensing, to drive out bad landlords and begin to soak up the vast oversupply of naff bedsits and one-bedroomed flats. 

We’d seek to restore confidence to would-be owner occupiers that the streets were safe (and worth investing in as a family home), and not just keep providing services to people whose lives didn’t change as a consequence, decade in decade out.

There are a great many people in Blackpool who work very hard, take their role in the community seriously, spend their lives unknown to Police and Social Services, are good neighbours, pay their taxes and just get on with life. 

I was privileged to address a “Big Thank You” event at the Winter Gardens yesterday – where we recognised the commitment of the 15,000 people who give up their time to work in all manner of volunteer projects, without whom we’d be lost. 

Regular readers will know that I talk a lot about fairness.  Is it fair that the great many people who work hard are supporting a growing number of people that don’t?

Don’t get me wrong, as a socialist (and actually, I think this is a belief common to most political parties) I want to support those who are genuinely sick, who have disabilities, and who are jobless and in need of support despite their best efforts. 

But I can’t stand by and let Blackpool be seen as some sort of hapless victim of society’s ills.  The recession has been tough (a lot tougher up here in the North than it has been elsewhere) – people are hard up, jobs are scarce.

But we must have HOPE, a vision for a better future, and an unshakeable belief that things can change. 

There has been a lot of furore recently about the NHS spending £85,000 on ‘No Smoking’ signs in parks – but nobody is talking about the fact that the NHS spends £5 million, right here in Blackpool, every year, on services connected to drug use and abuse.  £5 million.  Is that fair when, daily we read in the national press of people being denied treatment or medication on the grounds of cost?

I believe that if we show enough pride in Blackpool, enough dedication to developing policies, and pursuing them doggedly, we can start to turn around the dependency culture that has been created – allowing us to target tax-payers cash on those who are in genuine need of help, and who take responsibility for their own lives. 

But I need your help.

Could we do this?  Do people think it is fair?  Let me know your views…email me at cllr.simon.blackburn@blackpool.gov.uk or comment on the blog.

SHB