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.

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!

Continuing to strive for progress

As you’ll know – we’re being forced by a much reduced financial settlement from Central  Government to cut more than £25 million worth of jobs and services on top of the £39 million which has already been saved in the last few years.  That means that another 200-300 staff could be out of a job, on top of the 750 who have already been made redundant.

This is of course a tragedy for Blackpool – and I will continue to make the case in Westminster and Whitehall regarding the settlement we receive. But, in this edition I want to stress that we won’t allow these cuts to stifle our “progress” – which is, of course, the town’s motto.

Just recently, we announced a successful £2m bid for funding for Blackpool Illuminations which will help with an important revitalisation.

On that same note of progress we’ve also attracted around £2m of funding towards the Blackpool Museum project – which we hope will lead to a further investment of more than £20 million, to provide a new and very different attraction for locals and visitors alike, as well as being a showcase for the town’s rich and varied history.

We’re also currently in the midst of a £3.6m grant funded repair which will safeguard Yeadon Way – an absolutely vital route into our town – for decades.

And we’ve also, in conjunction with partners like the NHS and the NSPCC, attracted more than £50 million of external funding for projects like Better Start, Fulfilling Lives and Head Start

Better Start aims to give children a better start to life between birth and 3 years of age, a key time.  Fulfilling Lives helps us seek out individual alcohol and drug abuse problems, mental health problems and other issues and get those people on the right path, whilst Head Start will ensure greater emotional resilience and improved mental health outcomes for our adolescents.

An £11 million investment in a new hotel in the Town centre we believe will make money for the council in the years to come.  The Public Health service’s investment of £1.3 million a year in breakfasts for all our Primary School children is already paying huge dividends in terms of ability to learn – as well as helping to tackle obesity, poor diet and associated health problems.

We have to retain our ambition and evolve. We cannot stand still and stagnate. We must create new jobs – which all of the above will – to replace those that have already been lost.

We will be making further announcements in due course about our plans to make significant investments in the private sector rental market – complementing our highly successful selective licensing programme, which cracks down on bad landlords and bad tenants – and our huge expansion in building social and affordable housing on Queens Park and Rigby Road.

Despite the cuts, we must continue to strive for progress – to secure our financial base and make services responsive to your needs.

Why we shouldn’t penalise people for being ill

The case of four year-old Corey Leahy caught my eye in the London Evening Standard, whilst wending my way back from ANOTHER meeting in London.

He’s not been invited to his school’s end of term party, because he has had time off school to attend the dentist, and therefore has not got a 100% attendance record.

This has happened to my family – my five year-old daughter has been left upset when their necessary (two hour) attendance at the hospital counted against her come the end of term – although in fairness, when her Mum raised it, the school agreed with us, and she did go to the ball.

While I understand that central government dictates how schools record absences, I would hope that locally we take a more sympathetic approach when deciding who can and cannot attend a party.

If you ask the hospital and your GP to have all of your child’s medical needs met before 8.30am, after 4pm, or during the school holidays, you’ll be met with a very odd look indeed – it simply isn’t practical.

In a similar vein, one way in which councils are being encouraged to save money is by considering changing the terms and conditions of staff, so they don’t get paid for the first three days of sickness.

I declined to even discuss the matter, frankly.  Our staff have made huge sacrifices over recent years – taking unpaid leave, agreeing not to get their annual increments, paying to park at work, on top of getting no annual pay award – all of which adds up to a significant real terms pay cut – and we are having to ask them for another two years of such measures, as we fight to keep as many staff, delivering as many services as possible to the residents of Blackpool.

Rewarding people for good attendance is laudable but publically penalising people for being ill (whether you happen to be 4 or 44) seems a strange way to do business, and a strange way of motivating people.

Maybe we shouldn’t do it anymore?