‘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

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

  1. Simon, it’s the hardest questions that are the easiest to avoid. I was delighted to read your missive – because you face those questions head on – and I respect that. It is the truth, but it poses those real dilemmas in a simple to understand way. A lot of people will see the willingness to open up the discussions, and hopefully they will contribute in a positive way. There will always be those who want to do no more than take advantage of a negative situation, and those who struggle as victims. Many of the Council’s own staff do what they do because they believe that the town has the people with the resolve, determination desire and ideas to share in the task – if their voices can make themselves heard over the storm. Sometimes the bystanders will tell you it’s impossible…you can’t do anything. I’ve met that before……the thing is, once efforts are focused and the hard work delivers answers, they’ll change the tune.
    Someone said to me just today – have Ch 4 offered to do a series about the positive changes in Blackpool? We know where those are don’t we? So why not? Maybe we make our own? There – another difficult question?

    • Just found this –
      “The quality of a leader cannot be judged by the answers they give, but by the questions they ask.”
      Simon Sinek

  2. Its good that you are waking up to the reality of Blackpool, its been a dumping ground for years.Its time to wage an all out war on the capitalist slumlords who make a fortune in taxpayers money through the DELIBERATE importation of social undesireables,even as a socialist you would have to admit the the working poor are bearing the brunt of this sordid trade in human flesh. A line must be drawn, as this is unsustainable;its literally destroying Blackpool.For too long they have held sway in Blackpool,perhaps naming and shaming them is one approach.

  3. I think it’s very fair and long overdue; I have held a job full or part time since I was 14 years old all through school and college. I have never been in trouble with the police and I have visited the hospital (touch wood) only twice.

    I am not surprised by what I have seen on 999 at all as I have worked in a number of positions that have meant I have worked with a lot of the people and their counterparts that have been seen in the documentary.

    I had a similar thought to you when I was about 19 years old, I couldn’t understand why we constantly as a society threw money at people that just didn’t want or wouldn’t take the help offered to them or more annoyingly abused the help they were given.

    I like you am not saying we don’t help those that need it. The way we show we live in a truly great society is through the acts of kindness and generosity shown to those who need our help and I totally believe we have to still be a society that prides itself on helping those that need it. But we cannot afford to become a soft society prayed on by those who take us for all we are worth.

    It is about time somebody (you) took a stand against the people who are taking us for mugs and I for one am grateful.

    Thank you

  4. This may or may not be useful since it would need a change at central government to happen but…

    Seems to me that Blackpool is a place that inherently attracts these kinds of people because of its night-time and tourism-based economy. People can easily fall from grace when their livelihoods fall apart too – Blackpool not only has high (and growing) unemployment but even before the recession, it had a lot of low-wage seasonal labour – unstable employment. Clearly, as the tourism industry has declined, successive councils (with or without backing from central government at different times) have tried to revive or at least maintain that with differing levels of success. The public sector has to an extent helped Blackpool ‘keep going’ both in the face of the decline of tourism and by being all-year-round work which is therefore vital for the local economy. Now they are being slashed too. A short-term tourism boost from people choosing to to holiday within the UK is no long-term solution either (even if such events should be exploited by the town.

    Truth is – Blackpool needs to find another source of stable employment for more of its population. Until it does, these problems are never going away. I personally think manufacturing is the solution. That would need a government in Westminster with an active industrial policy however, something the current lot are either too incompetent or ideologically opposed to committing to.

  5. Being born in Blackpool I can say honestly that Blackpool has got worse yr after yr.Many people I know and work with would love to move out of Blackpool but the housing market prevents that. Blackpool is being taken over by low life no hopers.
    Your words sound good but as they say actions speak louder.
    The time has come to return the place to a family resort not a come and get drunk stag and hen venue.

  6. I think you have missed the point Simon. The money spent on drug treatment is to protect the good and deserving not to look after addicts who you rightly say are less deserving. Drug addicts who live chaotic lives create havoc and create victims of crime. That might not be right but it is certainly true as the majority of crime is committed by a small handful of criminally active people. The criminality is driven by an addiction that is out of control and makes people commit crime. That is not an excuse for them, it is just a fact. By all means stop spending money on trying to control drug addiction, the addicts will carry on regardless, but hundreds of people who would otherwise have been untouched by crime will soon become burglary victims, robbery victims and car crime victims. The money is spent to protect them not to mollycoddle addicts. If you don’t believe me look at the crime figures for the years before the Tower programme (the police and health project that treats active criminals with raging drug habits) You will see a dramatic fall in crime since it started In the years that followed, that drop in the graph line is a running total of real decent people who were not victimised because money was spent trying to manage the behaviour of people who would otherwise have run amok. So when you think it’s all about the addicts, consider the possibility that it is actually about the decent people who are being protected by solving the root cause of a problem rather than simply reacting to what it causes. On the subject of 999, its not all about Blackpool Council actually, its about the people in the emergency services and bringing some recognition for the excellent job they do. 

  7. There are out of town landlords who are turning our streets into slums. They buy properties at rock bottom prices, spend nothing on them and sublet to people who know nothing about the holiday business so change the use into HMOs which are eventually closed and lay empty only to rot and bring the area down. Get the slum properties cleaned up or knocked down with the cost to the owners.

  8. If tenants are causing a nuisance then the authorities should have the powers to call the landlord / responsible person to the property to sort out the problem. That would certainly make them think twice about who they let their properties to.. If the landlords are prepared to take government money in the form of housing benefit then they have to abide by the terms and conditions which goes with accepting the payment ie provide a 24/7 response service.

    • Thanks Paul, through the selective licensing scheme, we are doing just what you suggest – making landlords take responsibility for their tenants. I want to see this rolled out across the Borough because it seems to me to be an issue which touches the lives of many people. Thanks again

  9. Saw you on TV Simon, well done,its important that you bring national media attention to Blackpools problems ,especially with regard to landlords/property speculators who have milked the benefits system to make huge profits out of importing social undesireables.Its a vile practice that has to be stamped out.In addition those who dont comply with new strict rules as suggested, will the council publicly name and shame them as unfit landlords, ie picture and name?They are the scourge of the UK,especially as there is a housing shortage, that the current goverment has done nothing about and aggravated.Thankyou and well done.

  10. The sad reality is, if one has determined to be a burden on the state and spend a lifetime taking and not giving, the seaside is a great place to do it. Seaside towns attract losers, wasters, and wrong’ns. The trick is to deny them their comforts. And this is nothing new, it’s been building over the last three decades, or so.

    More generally, and specifically to Blackpool’s situation, I’m sure Beveridge would be turning in his grave to see his welfare state turned into a cash cow for those who contribute little or nothing to society, rather than the safety net he envisaged for those genuinely caught out by circumstance, a safety net that would provide the bare minimum to stave off the worst of the consequences.

    Given a free hand, and right wing sensibilities, I’m sure we all know what we’d like to do, but the question is what *can* we do to redeem our once great town and thriving economy?

  11. A very gutsy and bold request for help from everyone and I must congratulate you for having the nerve to do it. Your convictions and hopes for Blackpool are admirable and honest from what I see and witness on a daily basis. With regards to the housing issues and licensing, isn’t it time that Blackpool (possibly in conjunction with other Council’s in a similar position) grabbed the bull by the horns and approach Government with forward thinking and cutting edge new ideas and tools to help turn around and combat the problems that swamp us.

    Housing Benefit is a driving force for those that don’t contribute towards anything and conversely it attracts the landlords that don’t want to contribute anything towards housing standards. Accept anything and take everything culture from both sides. Lobby Government to change the law on distribution/allocation of housing benefit for example so that it is not automatically paid to tenants or landlords as a right when they turn up with a valid tenancy agreement. Surely, there must be some measures that can be brought into play at a local level with the backing of Government (even as a trial) to stop or suspend any payments before being allowed in full until housing officers have inspected the premises to check on standards and suitability? This way Landlords would at least have to present the property in a decent state at the start of the tenancy.

    Lobby Government to bring in full regulation of the private rented sector including compulsory registration and licensing of properties and landlords/agents etc that can be administered on a UK wide database much the same as the review by Dr Julie Rugg (The Rugg review). Many other countries have strict regulation and benefit massively from such schemes such as Germany where over 50% of the market is rented. The UK is heading this way with more and more finding it hard to get a mortgage.

    Eire (Republic of Ireland) brought in a swathing system in 2004 which is turning the private rented sector around and ridding it of bad tenants and landlords. A bold move by Eire and something that Blackpool could pilot so that the UK as a whole may benefit in the long run. By controlling the PRS in such ways you could reduce the demand for slums and those people that thrive on them and put the slumlords out of action/business if they don’t fall in line.

    There is obviously far more to this than I can write here and if you read between the lines you’d be hard pressed not to see the logic behind it. Certainly it is easier said than done but you’ve already taken the first steps to returning Blackpool to something many of us hope emerges out of the fog of the dependent culture that swallows up so much of everyone’s time and tax payers money. Keep up the good work.

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