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.

img_0223

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!

Fat chance if you don’t exercise!

I’ve got a confession to make…… I’m a bit fat.

I recently turned 40 and, unless the weight loss fairies turn up out of the blue, I’ll go into the early part of my fifth decade on the planet weighing in well over what I should be.

If the famous boxing announcer Michael Buffer of “Let’s Get Ready to Rumbllllllle!” fame was doing the old “tale of the tape”, he would say that Simon “The Bruiser” Blackburn, from Blackpool, England, was weighing in at five feet and six inches and weighing in at 13 and a half stones (he’d probably use metric but that’s another debate altogether).

In other words, I’m above what a healthy man of my size should be.

Now I blame this, in part, on me quitting smoking (eight months and counting) and, in part, on Denise who is in charge of butties at the Town Hall.

Sadly though, the rest is down to what doctors call a sedentary lifestyle – although since Emma and I got Bentley (the Labrador, now nine months old), we do more walking.

I make light of the problem but, as we all know health, not least obesity, is a problem across Blackpool.

And there are also a number of reasons that I feel the need to take the initiative and get my own house/stomach in order.

Firstly, I’m Chairman of the Health & Wellbeing Board, secondly, I’m getting more involved in the Victoria Hospital Trust and Clinical Commissioning Group and thirdly, I’m getting married in November!

I can’t, in all good conscience, fulfil any of those important obligations without at least making some effort towards losing a few pounds.

As a result I’ve signed up at the council’s new Gateway Fitness Centre – tucked away on George Street at the back of our new offices (and before you ask, no, councillors aren’t moving in to the new building).

It’s a good, convenient, town centre gym; not lavish but modern, practical and open to everyone and you can sign up on the council’s website online.

This isn’t an advert though, more a plea for others to read about this problem, which is weighing so heavily on me (boom boom) to have a think about their own health and whether it could be improved.

There are a million and one ways to exercise from joining a fancy expensive gym, to a mid-range one, to all the sports under the sun or simply going for a good walk or even a run every day.

It doesn’t have to cost a thing and we all know that.

For more information on getting to and maintaining a healthy weight, take a look at the various help that is available.

Finally, I’m hoping to attract sponsorship to lose the weight, to raise money for the Mayor’s Charities (Donnas Dream house and The Snowdrop centre), so keep an eye on this blog and I will keep you posted – or we’ve just got a “Just Giving” account up and running (geddit?), which I’ll promote via my own social media pages, as will the Council.

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?