Back to hard work after the election

The General Election is over, and we can finally get back to business.  For a ‘snap’ election, it certainly seemed to last a while.

I want to thank all those who put themselves forward for election, and especially our two MPs, Gordon Marsden and Paul Maynard – I look forward to working with them both.

The importance of our democratic process was underlined by the nation’s response to the four terrorist attacks at Westminster, Manchester, Tower Bridge and Finsbury Park.  Too many times recently we have lowered the flag over the Town Hall, darkened, and then illuminated the Tower in the colours of the Union flag, and held periods of silence on the Town Hall steps, as people from all over the UK signed our Books of Condolence.

The loss of one of our one, Jane Tweddle, a receptionist at South Shore Academy, the injuries caused to other Blackpudlians, and the deaths of other fellow Lancastrians, brought home to many people the fact that the country is engaged in a serious battle with extremism – and that we all have a role to play in fighting that battle.

As part of my national role with the Local Government Association I lead on counter extremism work on behalf of all councils in England & Wales.

I meet regularly with Ministers and Civil Servants, to discuss what is happening, and more can be done.  Prior to the election being called, the Government was already planning to relaunch its counter extremism strategy, and I will continue to work with Ministers and Councils, to make sure that this strategy is as robust as possible.

Alongside this work, we need the public to be alert – thirteen planned attacks on the UK have been stopped by police and security services since 2013 – in many instances, based on members of the public reporting their concerns.  If you have any concerns, or have information you think would be valuable, please call the UK Anti-Terrorist hotline on 0800 789 321.

On top of these attacks, the disastrous fire at Grenfell Tower was a sobering one for all of us to see and my thoughts are with all of the families of the victims whose lives have been torn apart. Again, we remembered those victims on the town hall steps this week, and have opened a separate book of condolence.

The public have demonstrated that they expect to see strong, empathetic and visible leadership from both the Government and from councils, when tragedies such as this occur.

As well as reviewing the fire safety arrangements and evacuation advice in our social housing here in Blackpool, we are working on what more we can do to support the Fire & Rescue service, to identify private sector premises (be they blocks of flats, houses in multiple occupancy or hotels) where there may be a greater risk of fire, more vulnerable residents, or complications in evacuation procedures.

The Chief Executive and I are also reviewing our emergency response and disaster recovery plans, to make sure that we are fully prepared for all eventualities.

Exciting times ahead for Blackpool businesses

As you are reading this latest blog, the council has just recently agreed its budget for another year. Over the last six years, cuts to the grant which the Government gives us to run vital services like social care, bin collections and parks maintenance have reached over £118m (a cumulative impact of £440m), and this year we are having to make another £18.7m worth of reductions or closures to the services that we deliver to you day in, day out.

The continuous reduction in the Government grant is the reality that is being faced by councils all across the country and their approach isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Yes, I expect our grant to be cut by a smaller amount next year, but that is still likely to take £3m-4m away from services which have already been cut to the bone.

So the only way that we can continue to protect those services that you value is to stop relying on central Government grants and start growing our own income.

The best way of doing that is to invest in Blackpool – in our businesses and in our people. As a Council, we have the ability to borrow money at a lower interest rate than others, which can then be lent out to support companies to build, grow and hire.

We are already doing that across Blackpool. Investment in the tramway extension will not only improve the town, but it will increase ticket sales that provide a receipt to the council. Investing in a new hotel in the Talbot Gateway will also improve the town, creating better options for businesses, bringing more local people in to employment and providing another return for the council that can also help protect services. You can read more about the exciting projects starting in Blackpool this year in the latest edition of Your Blackpool.

Actually, the potential for business to boom in Blackpool in the next few years is absolutely huge. A trio of cheap business rates, a prospering enterprise zone and a £100m loan fund means that all the tools are in place for businesses on the Fylde coast to not only compete but to thrive.

From April, changes to business rate valuations will reduce the rates for businesses throughout Blackpool, while extra small business rate relief will allow growing companies to flourish and we expect 3,000 companies to be exempt from business rates completely.

Add the introduction of the Enterprise Zone at Blackpool Airport – which has already created 400 jobs – to the pot and companies relocating to Blackpool could be eligible for up to £275,000 worth of rate relief over a five year period as well as enhanced allowances for them to invest in fixed plant and machinery.

We are also helping businesses to expand and be successful through our own £100m New Loan Fund, which can be given out to companies willing to hire more local employees. That support is already helping businesses to grow. Take Laila’s Fine Foods in Bispham, for example. They have benefitted from two of our loans already, helping them to build a new warehouse, increase their factory to 90,000 square feet, increase their turnover to £36m a year and hire over 300 local people.

These loans will not only help companies to expand, but the repayments will help support our own budget and maintain our services.

For thousands of Blackpool businesses, this trio of business incentives means that they will have more spare money to spend on investing and growing their company. That could equate to thousands of pounds spent on hiring new workers, expanding their offices or investing in new machinery to take on extra work.

For businesses operating in the south of the country where rates and costs are continuing to rise, the benefits of moving to the Fylde coast could be even bigger.

The potential for future investment in Blackpool is exceptionally high. We already have corporations champing at the bit to invest in Blackpool this year and I am really looking forward to seeing the benefits that can bring to local people over the next few years.

This investment, along with our own, is absolutely crucial to create jobs, to boost visitor numbers, boost the local economy, and secure income for future generations.

 

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”.

 

Budget proposals 2016/17

Blackpool Council has today announced proposals to achieve £9 million savings to council services in the next financial year, 2016/17, with another £11 million still to be found from corporate measures.

It is expected to result in 200 job losses with an additional 50 posts ending.

Council Leader Simon Blackburn has blogged about his thoughts on the budget announcement below.

This is the fifth time that I have had to announce multi-million pound cuts and hundreds of job losses. It is the day of the year that I dread and it certainly does not get any easier with time.

Today we present to the public how we think £9 million can be saved from the services that they receive each and every day. Services that they rely on, services that care for their children and families, and services that make a difference to the area in which they live and work.

During the summer we asked Blackpool residents to have their say and let us know how they would make savings. Many people commented how difficult an exercise it was and in fact many declared it impossible. That is how we feel every year when we look at every penny the council spends and how it can be reduced.

We have used the views of residents and businesses when formulating our proposals, for example protecting Street Cleansing and retaining all eight of the Council’s libraries.

There are also areas that we know cannot cope with any further cuts and they will be protected.

Our difficult decision earlier this year to close the SureStart-attached nurseries has allowed us to keep open all of the Sure Start Centres and Children’s Centres.

But there are no easy solutions – many services will be affected by these cuts.

At this stage we have not received our settlement from the Government so we do not know the exact amount that we need to save but we are working on the basis that it will be £20 million. Blackpool has been one of the hardest hit councils in the country, being forced to make £93 million of cuts since 2010.

A lot of staff will be facing an uncertain future as a result of today’s news. It marks the start of an upsetting time for them and their families and they face losing their income. For those that aren’t at risk they will be asked to commit to taking more unpaid leave and delivering services with less money and fewer team members to help them.

It is a difficult day for all concerned but our commitment to providing quality services to people of Blackpool remains the same. We will make it work because we have to.

“Blackpool will welcome Syrian refugees”

As I write this, the issue uppermost in most people’s minds is the global refugee crisis.

Both the UK and Blackpool have a long, proud tradition of helping those most in need – Blackpool having welcomed Polish migrants in the 1940s, Hungarians in the 1950s, and Kosovans in the 1990s.

The current focus is on people in Calais, and people fleeing Syria.  But the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees states that at the end of 2014, there were almost 20 million people, or an average of 42,500 people per day forced to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere.

Syria is of course not the only nation in crisis – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Palestine, Eritrea, Mali, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Yemen – to name but a few all have displaced peoples who are in desperate need.

But for now, the presenting issue is Syria.

The Prime Minister has committed to taking 20,000 Syrian refugees.  I am meeting with the Shadow Home Secretary tomorrow, with the Home Office Security Minister next week, and have been having conversations with local government leaders from across the UK over the past fortnight.

I have also spoken with colleagues at the council, constituents, friends and others, as well as keeping one eye on how the media is reporting the crisis.  As in any situation, opinions vary – but generally speaking people are overwhelmingly positive about the idea of us helping out in any way we can.

Of course there are those who feel that “charity should begin at home” and that we should “sort our own problems out first” and I try to understand that view.  Blackpool has huge problems, which we are striving to address – but we cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the world.

We must accept that – however bad our problems may be locally – these people who are fleeing Syria are infinitely worse off than we are – almost all of us have food enough to eat, shelter and warmth – they have nothing.

Given the thousands of (often very troubled) people from within the UK who turn up in Blackpool every year, with little more than the shirt on their back, I think we can find it within our hearts and wallets, to take just a handful more.

So, we will be working hard over the coming days and weeks to work out a plan for how could meet the housing, health, education and other needs of refugees, to try and ensure that they feel welcomed, and a valued part of our community.

I am confident that the people of Blackpool will play their part in this effort, and that (aside from the dozen or so people whom I already know will send me hate mail for daring to suggest we might welcome a few refugees from far-flung shores), we will offer them a welcome which reflects Blackpool’s world famous reputation for hospitality, and our basic human instinct to protect those less fortunate than ourselves.

Could a county-wide devolution deal be on the cards for Lancashire?

The devolution debate moves on apace.

This is something that local government leaders across England welcome – irrespective, it would seem of their political persuasion.  I happened to watch part of a meeting of Oldham Council on the web last night, at which they debated the issue at some length, and what was striking was how much consensus there was.  I have noted that at our meetings of the Lancashire Leaders (the specifics of which must, of course, remain private) party politics are rarely a factor when we discuss devolution, or the potential formation of a Combined Authority.

The Government suffered a defeat in the Lords earlier this week, on the question of elected mayors and today a deal for Cornwall has been announced which does not include a requirement for an elected mayor and contains “transport, employment and skills, EU funding, business support, energy, health and social care, public estate, heritage and culture, with a number of exciting ‘firsts’ for Cornwall.”

Depending on the point one wishes to prove, we can see similarities or differences between Lancashire and Cornwall.  They are a not dissimilar size –in terms of land mass (Cornwall is just over 1,400 square miles, Lancashire a little smaller at 1,200) – but in terms of population, Lancashire is almost three times the size, with a population of nudging 1.5 million (including the Unitary councils), whereas Cornwall only just tops half a million.  Cornwall has much more coastline to worry about, and a different ethnic mix to Lancashire – with almost 96% of the population identifying as White British.  Rural issue will be higher up Cornwall County’s priorities than they will be in many of Lancashire’s urban district Councils – but the key issue is the politics of the situation, or, to be more precise, the Governance.

Cornwall became a unitary authority in 2009 – when the County Council and 6 District Councils were abolished.  Lancashire is much less straightforward – we have a County Council, 12 District Councils and 2 Unitary Councils.  Cornwall is likely to be – partly due to having longstanding traditions around Liberalism and a bent towards Independent councillors – one of those Councils which remains under No Overall Control – whereas in Lancashire (at County, District and Unitary levels) control tends to pretty much swing between the two major parties.  Places like Blackpool – a usually Labour Unitary, buttressed by two usually Conservative Districts – with an odd sort of relationship with a County which has been Labour, Conservative and No Overall Control all in the space of the last 7 years, sometimes feels a bit of a lonely place to be!  I characterise our relationship with the County Council as being akin to that of a divorced couple (Blackpool and Lancashire separated on 1st April 1998, and whilst we get on fine most of the time, there are those awkward moments when it feels like we’re the target of a passionately bellowed Gloria Gaynor number, as soon as we’re out of the car park).

Therefore in both situations – albeit for different reasons – an elected mayor seems (and is) a fairly silly idea.  The notion that one person could relate as well to the good people of Skelmersdale, Blackpool, Clitheroe and Dolphinholme as they could to the citizens of Lammack, Skippool, Euxton and Barnoldswick is just a bit far-fetched.  We only need to look at turnout in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections to see how fired up people get about selecting such a remote sounding individual.

My embryonic solution to this, and a solution which I think is being embraced by other Leaders, is the idea of a Leadership Board for Lancashire.  Any Combined Authority (and there is much debate and discussion required to get to that point) needs to be, and do, a number of things:

  • Be clear that it is NOT a step towards Local Government reorganisation, or creation of one Unitary Lancashire Council.
  • Be clear that it is NOT just a new layer of bureaucracy.
  • Set out clearly what the advantages are in terms of devolved power and cash from London.
  • Give each Council (from the huge County to the smallest District) one seat and one vote on the Leadership Board – with an additional non-voting seat for the Chair of the LEP (there might be an argument for the Police and Crime Commissioner to be a non-voting member as well).
  • For the Leadership Board to elect a Chair from those 15 voting members – who would be the public and accountable face of the Combined Authority.
  • Allow member Councils an opt-out (rather than a veto) on major issues.
  • Allow member Councils the ability to work in conjunction with a smaller number of like-minded or geographically relevant councils, if not all members of the CA are interested in a particular subject.
  • Agree that on certain key issues there must be unanimity before moving ahead – including any decisions which saw power transfer UP from local Councils to the Combined Authority.

The Chair – who would need to be re-elected every year – would be subject to the vicissitudes of the electorate (put bluntly, whichever political party controlled more than 50% of the Councils in Lancashire would take the Chair), and should/would be held publicly accountable by the Government and the constituent councils for the performance of the Combined Authority.  I don’t believe that it is palatable or practical for the County Council either to fund/facilitate the Combined Authority, or to Chair it.  This is no reflection upon the incumbent – who is superb – but merely a reflection of the widely held view that successful devolution cannot be based around any one organisation.  Fortunately, I believe on this occasion that the County Council share my view!

The new Secretary of State spoke to the LGA Conference in Harrogate a couple of weeks ago.  I was present, and two points stuck in my mind.  Firstly, that the LEP is central to any Combined Authority arrangements.  Our LEP needs work – it needs better PR, better relationships with key stakeholders, a more inclusive approach, and perhaps some fresh blood.  Secondly, Combined Authorities need to involve all part of a County or City Region.  Any approach to Government for a Lancashire Combined Authority, which wasn’t agreed and signed up to by all 15 constituent bodies would, in my view, be destined to fall at the first hurdle.

It is now for each of those 15 Leaders, once we have met again at the start of September, to be clear about what our negotiating position with Government is – what we need to make it work, what Governance structures should be put in place to guarantee a fair representation across the County, and whether or not there is enough on offer for a small, but significant transfer of power to take place locally.

My Deputy and I also organised and hosted a meeting for other coastal and port towns and cities at the LGA conference.  The results were impressive to say the least.  There was a huge amount of enthusiasm (with more than 30 different local authorities and LEPs represented, by both politicians and senior officers) for joint working around subjects as diffuse as Housing Benefit, sea defences, concessionary fares, houses in multiple occupancy, VAT levels and pressures on Looked After Children numbers, to name but a few.  With the unanimous agreement of the meeting, it was agreed to meet again at the Annual British Destinations Conference in Blackpool this October – who have very kindly agreed to us running a workshop on further potential joint working arrangements.  So whilst we may tentatively look to Lancashire for our formal, geographic combined authority, that is no reason not to consider a further bid for powers to be devolved to a collection of geographically dispersed, but socially and economically united authorities early next year. We have an opportunity to put coastal communities, tourism and the hospitality industry firmly on the Treasury’s to-do list, let’s take it!

Central government has devolved the blame for future 24/7 shopping culture

One of the surprises in the Budget was the announcement that powers are to be granted to local authorities to relax restrictions on Sunday trading.

Central government has devolved the blame for future 24/7 shopping culture

I have daily conversations about devolution with fellow local government leaders, and not one of them has ever expressed a desire to decide who can buy what on a Sunday, but the Treasury moves in mysterious ways.

The current Sunday Trading Act is either a wonderful example of British compromise, or a typical British fudge, depending on your opinion.

John Hannett, the general secretary of shop workers union Usdaw, was probably right when he said it seems everyone got a bit of what they wanted: “retailers can trade, customers can shop, staff can work, while Sunday remains a special day, different to other days, and shop workers can spend some time with their family”.

I’m a Christian but my reservations about any changes to Sunday trading are not primarily about religious observance. I understand that it is not Tesco being full which leaves many of our churches half-full.

Complex family structures and working patterns are very common and most people appreciate that families – of all descriptions, ethnicities, beliefs and sexualities, with or without children – want to spend time together.

The retail lobby will soon be telling us that millions are at stake but most people have finite budgets and couldn’t spend any more if every shop was open every minute of every day, as online retailers already are. No one would want people getting into even more debt to fund Sunday evening shopping.

We won’t hear how much family breakdown costs the country and how debt problems and a lack of time spent together all contribute to family breakdown.

Governments can devolve power, and they can devolve blame. This appears to be a new type of devolution: devolving lobby group pressure.

I can hear the advice now: “But Preston/Camden/Leeds has done it, Cllr Blackburn. If we don’t follow suit, we’ll get left behind.”

You soon end up, as we have in licensing and planning, with an army of lawyers, armed with woolly legislation, a presumption in favour of permission being granted, and a few well-publicised appeals, and soon everything, everywhere, will have to be open 24/7.

Where will this 24/7 culture end? Boxing Day has already been taken over by sales shopping; what’s next, Christmas Day?

Every day we see on the news people who have lost their loved ones and wish they had more time together. Time spent with family and friends is precious and should be treasured.

Have we, as a sector, the courage to resist this retail free-for-all?  Let’s see.