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.

Bridging the fairness gap

“Life isn’t fair,” or so the saying goes.

It’s a bleak protestation and one that, for many people in Blackpool, will ring true.

From Wayne Rooney putting pen to paper on his shiny new £300,000 a week contract to the next door neighbour’s new car or TV, we see frustrating examples of inequality that seem extremely unfair all the time.

And there’s often a sense with these things that there is little we can do other than crack on and try not to get worked up about it.

However, I’m no supporter of that type of apathy, and am a firm believer we can all do our little bit to make our lives, and the lives of others, at least feel a little fairer.

Step forward the Blackpool Fairness Commission, and the fairness movement in general, which is aimed at we, the general public, helping to close the fairness gap.

It won’t make the Government give you back your taxes, stop the speed camera from giving you a speeding ticket for doing 31mph in a 30mph zone or stop those slates falling off your roof in high winds.

But what it could do is make a little difference to the lives of others if we all show a little positivity and personal “fairness”.

The Blackpool Fairness Commission has been running for a good while now and it’s done some very positive things like simple but brilliant 100 Acts of Kindness campaign that has seen a lot of people step up to the mark and do something for their community.

We also recently hosted the first ever North of England Fairness Conference here in Blackpool to help encourage other areas to setup their own fairness movements.

I’d love you to take part and help too.

I recognise too that fairness begins at home and we’ve tried to come up with “fair” policies that will reduce the fairness gap and narrow social inequality.

I’m talking about providing children with free breakfasts in school because they aren’t getting fed at home.

I’m talking about providing it universally because that is fair and unites rather than divides.

I’m talking about setting up one of the strongest food bank networks in the region to make sure people don’t go hungry.

And finally, I’m talking about our latest idea, to encourage young people to break the cycle of debt we suffer from by saving money and learning about its value, even if it means coaxing them with a tenner to do so.

I’d love to sign every child up for an account compulsorily and teach them all about saving.  The law won’t let us do that.

What we can do is reach out a hand of friendship and fairness and try to urge our youngsters to lead the way.                                                                                     

We want them to grow up with a fairer ethos, in a fairer society.

That’s the way to create a fairer, better Blackpool.

“STOP THIS NOW – BEFORE YOU DAMAGE BLACKPOOL FOREVER”

As the leader of a large local authority like Blackpool you become very used to the non-stop juggernaut that is the press.

In this 24/7 news media environment the internet age has created, news is incessant and unending.

The Gazette, Radio Wave and BBC Radio Lancashire are in daily contact with the Council and don’t miss an opportunity to report even the smallest contentious issue.

To give them their due, they are also very accommodating when the council has something to say.

Reporters from the regional and national media turn up for the big stuff, film shots of the Tower and the beach (often making snide remarks in the process) and we never see them again.

It’s the way it works and, generally, I welcome the media’s work; it’s healthy for democracy and criticism is par for the course.

I understand too that newspapers will often, rather than report from a neutral standpoint, flag wave for a particular policy or position they support. They are all perfectly entitled to do so.

That comes with great social responsibility though and, at times, a line can be crossed.

In my view that happened in Thursday night’s Gazette.

“STOP THIS NOW – BEFORE YOU DAMAGE BLACKPOOL FOREVER,” one of their inside pages ordered the council.

What were they talking about?

Were councilors planning to pull the Tower down?

Were they looking to build houses on StanleyPark?

Actually we had enraged them by having the temerity to ask the public their opinions on whether or not it might be sensible for people to knock the booze on the head by 3am.

This is probably a good point at which to introduce a bit of context.

This week Blackpool was revealed to have the lowest male life expectancy in the country with drink being one of the biggest contributing factors.

A report by the Guardian this week described the town as having “catastrophic” levels of liver cirrhosis. (here)

There are hundreds of other health indicators I could list to contextualise that particular problem but, as The Gazette so vociferously pointed out at the time, a television show did that more effectively than I ever could.

Step forward “999…What’s Your Emergency?”

The Channel 4 show, much to our chagrin, painted a bleak picture of Blackpool and, particularly, town centre nightlife.

“CAMERAS SHOW THE TRUE COST OF DRINK,” The Gazette blared.

Now, just like the BBC can make the most ordinary day of football look like a thrilling goal-fest by boiling it all down into an hour’s worth of Match of the Day, the show painted an impactful and perhaps somewhat misleading picture.

But the evidence is there for all to see regardless of editing and town centre trouble is a problem whatever statistics you want to go by.

I acknowledged as much at the time, spoke frankly and promised action, being commended for doing so in The Gazette’s editorial, I seem to recall.

Yet now, when the Council has the audacity to consult on a measure that might contribute to toning down that type of behavior, we are pilloried.

Don’t cry for me Blackpool; I can take it on the chin. I’m merely pointing out the irony.

As part of their coverage on Thursday, the council was asked whether consulting on the EMRO was “a knee-jerk reaction” to the show.

The spokesman who answered the questions replied: “No.”

It’s an extremely insulting question, symptomatic of the confrontational way in which this story was approached, and I’m not sure what type of answer they were expecting.

“Yes, we came up with it and wrote it on the back of a fag packet after a few cans,” perhaps?

I won’t analyse every aspect of the coverage and I’m not looking to campaign for or against an EMRO.

It’s for the Licensing Committee to make a recommendation under a free vote based on the evidence brought forward.

But I felt the stance taken was disproportionate, inconsistent and, above all, socially irresponsible.

Championing Blackpool businesses is something The Gazette has done very effectively and I admire their efforts in doing so.

They’re working with the council on an apprenticeship scheme right now.

But let’s be very clear – and this is where I feel their coverage was disproportionate – at present introducing an EMRO would lead to two nightclubs closing a couple of hours earlier.

To present this as though this would drop a nuclear bomb on Blackpool’s economy is quite frankly ludicrous.

Despite their very ardent position and strong belief that the EMRO may damage the town, outlined in the Editor’s blog, The Gazette themselves have not submitted a consultation response.

That leads me to ask are they really supporting the businesses of the town or just trying to sell papers?

What truly astonished me, however, was the backslapping that came the following day.

A self-congratulatory article blustered that The Gazette had done “a vital job raising issues.”

In an article containing five quotes, three of those quotes came from people from an umbrella of companies who would be directly affected if the EMRO is introduced.

What’s more, if the paper had really wanted to share the issues with the people of Blackpool they would have started their drum beating a little earlier than a few hours before the consultation closed.

The most irksome aspect and the part that really saddens me, however, is the lack of social responsibility.

At no stage in the four page “special report” did The Gazette acknowledge the number of lives that are ruined through alcohol-related violence.

From rapes and sexual assaults, domestic violence and even murder to your straightforward pub fight, the cost to families is enormous.

In the Editor’s column, Jon Rhodes, admits that there are violent scenes but questioned “are we really so much worse than anywhere else?”

As Council Leader I’m not willing to accept “oh well, it happens everywhere,” and carry on as if there’s no issue.

I’ve been forthright in my praise of our local newspaper previously and was quoted in their 150th issue praising their role in society in Blackpool and I know these are difficult times for newspapers with staffing levels not what they once were.

But this time I think they’ve got it badly wrong and I would urge them to look again at their position.

I thank each and every person that has responded to the EMRO consultation.

You have gone about expressing your views in the right way.

While, as I’ve said, this is a decision which is out of my hands and the recommendation will be made by the Licensing Committee, I know that every comment will be taken into account.

The EMRO decision is not a done deal; far from it.

Until all the views have been heard and all the facts have been discussed no decision will be made.

But before The Gazette claims to speak on behalf of the town again I suggest they cast their net wider, think a little harder and try to look at things in their social context, as the Council must do, rather than as one, isolated headline-grabbing story.

Helping the hardest hit

A report issued last week by academics from Sheffield Hallam University (here) claimed Blackpool was the area of the country “hardest hit” by the Government’s welfare cuts.

This is no great surprise; in fact, it backs up what we have been saying for months.

While some areas of the south are barely touched by the changes, residents across northern towns and cities like Blackpool are suffering.

We are doing what we can to help our residents through these desperately difficult times though.

We’ve introduced a free breakfasts scheme so that every primary school pupil can start the day with a healthy meal, saving parents money and making a social commitment to driving up standards in the future by giving children the best possible start.

The scheme has now been extended until May, at that point the Cabinet will meet to discuss the research carried out by University of Northumbria and decide the future of the scheme.

We’ve frozen council tax and we’ve implemented a living wage scheme for staff putting extra money in the pockets of our lowest paid workers.

Some people might be surprised to hear that over 200 of our staff were paid less than the living wage prior to April.

You might also be surprised to know that a survey by the National Association of Pension Funds earlier this year found that the average pension of a local government worker is £4,882 per year – not quite the picture that people like to paint about local government workers.

These initiatives can help in a small way but there’s only so much we can do as a council when, year-on-year, the Government makes devastating cuts to our budgets.

One of the biggest ongoing causes for concern is the changes that have been made to housing benefit, in particular the under-occupation of homes.

Blackpool Coastal Housing (BCH) have done an incredible amount of work to try to engage with residents (here) about the changes but, despite their best efforts, some people have, unfortunately, buried their heads and hoped the problem will go away.

It won’t, and now the changes are upon us, those people may be feeling the pinch.

There is a large range of support available, however, and I would urge people to make contact with BCH if they are having trouble on 477942.

Looking to the more positive side of things and speaking of housing, Blackpool Council Executive this week signed off the next steps for two key housing developments. (here)

Both schemes, at Queens Park and Rigby Road, are absolutely vital in providing quality housing for local people for decades to come.

It won’t be a quick and easy process but progress is being made.

And finally, I was keen to highlight some fantastic news that has been coming out from FYCreatives and the council’s business support team.

Latest figures show that an amazing 750 businesses have been helped to get off the ground since 2007 thanks to business loans and support from the council.

This is remarkable feat and really backs up our policy of supporting small and medium size businesses I look forward to hearing more success stories from them.

Finally, as I was preparing this post, I was informed that former Mayor of Blackpool, Alderman Edmund Wynne has passed away.

I was delighted to be able to name one of our new Flexity trams after Edmund a few months ago, and delighted that he was well enough at the time to be able to attend the unveiling with his family, and have his photograph taken with “his” tram.

Edmund always represented the ward in which he lived.

A former Leader of the Liberal Party in Blackpool, he was a man of great intellect, passion and dedication, to both the town and to his family – in whose achievements he took justifiable pride.

Our thoughts are with his son Robert, daughter-in-law Gaynor and his Grandchildren.

Evaluating breakfasts

At a time of diminishing central Government cash, and with Councils hamstrung by the need for referenda to approve the most modest of Council Tax increases, there can surely be no scope for growth items in our forthcoming budgets?

On the contrary, I believe it is a vital part of demonstrating Local Government’s leadership role within our communities.

If we don’t identify specific local need, and develop policies to address that need, how can we claim to be in touch with those whom we strive to serve?

The nation’s assembled media descended upon us in January for the launch of Blackpool Council’s free school breakfast pilot scheme.

And I dare say, after a few hours work at one of our excellent primary schools, many of them were a bit peckish and didn’t much feel like working until they got a good meal.

I’m happy to say though for the next few months at least, and I hope long into the future, that won’t be the case for the young children of the town.

Under our radical proposals, all 12,000 primary school pupils will receive a healthy breakfast, to kick start their day in the right way.

This, we believe, will help them to focus on learning and not rumbling tummies, allowing teachers to do their job and giving the children the best possible opportunity to succeed.

We need to create a generation of children who understand the importance of nutrition, who will then go on to provide that nutrition to their children.

The idea has been well supported by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and welcomed by the Children’s Society, whose research suggests the scheme is much needed.

I’m excited to see its effect, although I suspect much of that will only be demonstrated in the medium to long term.  We will be working with academics from a leading University to ensure that the pilot scheme is robustly assessed against key performance indicators and statistical analysis – that is the evidence base upon which future decisions will be taken

There are naysayers, of course, but I’m happy to tackle them head on.

Some have questioned the need for universality – providing free breakfasts to everyone. But restricting breakfast to those on benefits massively stigmatises the recipients and loses all of the benefits of communal eating.

And what about working parents – where families are working often the day is very long for their children. The day starts early and children are up and out to stay with grandparents or neighbours and friends until the school day begins. By the time they get to school it can be some time since they had their breakfast and they are often hungry and ready for something to eat – if you’ve had your breakfast at 6.00 it is a long time until lunch time.

Others have said it rewards poor parenting. I prefer to look on it as ensuring children do not become victims of poor parenting, providing them with a culture of healthy eating and learning, which will lead to improved educational attainment.

It also costs a fair bit of money at a time when jobs are being lost within the council and outside – very true. However, the scheme will save money for hardworking families, put money back into our local economy through local sourcing and create jobs for support staff.

If anyone wants to argue the toss with me over whether the wellbeing and nutrition of the children of Blackpool is a priority, I’ll happily have that debate.  If others are content to allow the current financial climate to paralyse our inherent sense of fairness and fetter our ambition for our children, then so be it.

In the meantime I’ll be working to make the policy a success and push things forward.  The rewards we stand to reap from this programme in years to come (improved attendance, behaviour, attainment – and therefore ultimately a more healthy, highly skilled and appealing workforce) will come in direct proportion to our willingness to sow the seeds of hope and opportunity today.