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”.

 

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.

Budget hits Blackpool families hard

Local Government has, over the last five years, gone through a period of unprecedented change.

Blackpool Council has seen its budget cut by around £93m and, as I said from the outset, it would not be possible for the Government to make such an enormous cut and not negatively affect people in Blackpool, in particular the least well-off in society.

You’ll see it in your everyday lives.

When you walk past your local green space and see the grass is looking less well kempt than it used to, that’s because we have half the staff maintaining it.

When you want someone to clean up some fly-tipping on your street, it will probably take them longer to come because there are fewer people doing the job.

Even when you try and give us a call to complain about problems like the two I’ve listed above, you might have a job getting through straight away because there are fewer people taking the calls.

There are people out there that will say, “But, you’re doing X for X amount of money”.

Projects like our free breakfasts scheme for primary school children often fall into this category along with any regeneration related efforts.

However, if we stand still, and fail to improve the town as we did over decades in the 60s, 70s and 80s we risk becoming just another tragic failed seaside resort; a relic of a bygone era.

The town’s motto is progress and we are following that.

Despite the cuts, we’re continuing to be bold and invest; trying to help society help itself.

Undeniably though, as I’ve laid out at the top, Local Government is the place where people are really seeing the effects of “austerity” really coming to fruition, particularly here in the North.

The recent Government budget speech by the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not mention Local Government which makes me nervous about what is to come in the Autumn spending review.

The lowered benefit cap, and the news that working age benefits to be frozen for four years will pose significant challenge to Blackpool residents.

We know that 15,000 families in Blackpool claim tax credits and 23,000 children live in these families but we don’t know yet on how the revised thresholds will pan out in terms of numbers affected.

Potentially a good number of these will not only be affected by a cut in amount but all of them will be affected by the freeze on uprating.  The benefit cap drop from £26,000 to £20,000 will also have a real financial impact – for those 135 people already capped it will be a further income drop of over £100 per week.

Just days on from seeing education experts confirm that our children’s social care services are on the up and improving, our social workers will, I hope, feel a sense of pride at being recognised as the proud and passionate workers they are.

They are making an incredible difference to the most troubled families’ lives under incredibly difficult circumstances but how will those families that they visit cope when we have less resource to help them and they have less money to live off?

I am supportive of any initiative to help people into work. The best way out of poverty is through work. What I do wonder is where all the jobs will come from once people are off benefits. A key priority for this council is to generate new jobs. That is at the heart of every scheme we implement from building new sea defences to developing a new museum to boost the tourism industry.

My take on devolution

Combined Authorities appear to be Central Government’s preferred model of devolving power in England – and whilst there are numerous arguments against this proposition, it is likely that these will fall upon deaf ears.  We must therefore deal with the actualité of the situation.

Devolution is a subtle and nuanced matter, not given to soundbites or easy solutions.  I am very clear in my view that devolution ought to mean power transferring from Whitehall and Westminster to Blackpool.  Council Leaders in Wales and Scotland tell me that devolution from Westminster has led simply to powers being centralised in Cardiff and Holyrood – and not passed down to local councils.

We cannot allow such a situation here –any combined authority for Lancashire must treat all participant councils as equal partners.    Current joint working arrangements are variable in their success.  Transport for Lancashire (a partnership between Blackpool, Blackburn and Lancashire County) works well – the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (a similar partnership) does not, and I remain singularly unimpressed by it.  The MP’s for Hyndburn and Chorley have both expressed their concerns about this style of devolution, with which I have some sympathy.

Blackpool became a unitary authority because we did not feel that a council the size of LCC could pay enough attention to our very specific needs – Blackburn with Darwen clearly felt the same.  In recent months, both Wyre and Chorley have indicated a preference for unitary status, so clearly that feeling has not gone away.

There can therefore be no talk of an elected mayor for Lancashire, or the formation of a “Greater Lancashire” authority which sees power taken out of the hands of Blackpudlians – but I’m not against negotiating around issues where there may be a common set of aims – education planning and strategic housing matters present themselves as obvious areas which bear further exploration.

In the final analysis however, Blackpool has more in common with places like Hastings than it does with places like the Ribble Valley (I was born in Blackburn, grew up in Clitheroe, and have just ordered my Blackburn Rovers Season Ticket – East Lancashire is a wonderful place, but very different to Blackpool).  In the coming months, therefore, I will be exploring the possibility of working with other seaside towns – some of whom might, like Blackpool, want local control over housing benefit budgets, as a tool to dealing with a large surplus of former hotel accommodation, to name but one issue.

Is the Government brave enough to consider devolving powers to a group of councils who have a lot in common, but who aren’t geographic neighbours?  We’ll see…

Bargains galore for Blackpool residents

Everyone loves a bargain.

We know it, the marketing people with their BOGOFs and their two-for-one’s know it; they put a smile on everyone’s face and a spring in our step.

So, while we’re all still feeling the summer buzz around Blackpool, I’ve decided in this blog I won’t harp on about politics.

Instead I want to point out to you some of the best bargains and boosts the Council can offer you, the Blackpool local.

Charity begins at home, they say, so first off we’ve brought in a whole host of recycling innovations to try to help keep Blackpool – and your house – nice and tidy.

One big one is Rover – our free new mobile tip – which travels around one area per day, saving people the fuel cost of a trip to the tip at Bristol Avenue.

Keep an eye on our website and social media pages for times and locations which change depending on demand.

If you do make your way to the tip we’ve also got a very popular new innovation – the Re-Use store – which reclaims and reconditions goods that people are looking to dump, putting them back on sale to pay for the tip’s upkeep and raise money for charity.

This project too has been a great success and, believe me, from TV’s to toys, there are amazing bargains and top quality items to be had.

The summer in Blackpool is always all about fun and we always try to put on free events aimed at families.

From the Blackpool Air Show, which was a soaring success despite windy weather, and Ride the Lights to the upcoming World Fireworks Championships running every Friday night in September, we’ve some wonderful free events for people both young and old to enjoy.

And speaking of fun, I’m excited to see our new community engagement tool – the council couch – coming to your area very soon.

It’s quirky, it’s a bit of fun, it costs next to nothing but it will hopefully get people talking and allow you, the local resident, to come along and get something off your chest.

Maybe you can even suggest an idea that will help us a better deal for Blackpool.

And finally we’ve a new scheme which could help you save a good whack off one of everyone’s least favourite pest to their pocket – energy bills.

Our collective energy switching scheme, Ready to Switch, is back – keep an eye out for details in the press, on our website and online.

We’ve also a whole host of energy-saving advice and expertise available and a new home insulation scheme in the pipeline.

Keep an eye out for news on that soon.

You can find out more about these initiatives by searching the words in bold on the Blackpool Council website.