“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.

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…

Budget blog

On Friday 27 February, the full council met to discuss this year’s budget proposals. The proposals were passed with 25 councillors voting in favour and nine against. Here, Cllr Simon Blackburn, Leader of Blackpool Council explains the tough decisions the authority had to make and will have to make in the future.

February 27 was a truly grim day and certainly one that, coming into politics, I never expected to have to deal with.

Although I am satisfied that we have a budget that is achievable and protects vital services, it is with a very heavy heart that I agreed to a £26 million reduction in budget and the loss of 300 jobs.

As in previous years we hope the vast majority of the redundancies will be voluntary and we are working with people to support them into setting up new careers or their own businesses.

Clearly it’s a very difficult time to be doing anything like that as well. These are all excellent people doing jobs that need to be done.

That makes it all the more difficult.

Looking to the future we need to plan how we are going to continue to provide services to those who need it most in the face of the likelihood of further cuts in the future.

We’ve had huge success in attracting external funding from the Growth Deal which shows that the Government understand what needs to be done and the freedoms we need to stand on our own two feet.

We’ve got our £45m Better Start project, the Head Start scheme to assist teenagers suffering with mental health issues, we’ve brought in £2.4m from the Coastal Communities Fund. It’s all good stuff but we can only bid for what is available and I’m concerned that overall, for Local Government, there isn’t enough.

We need to look at what has happened in Greater Manchester with the announcement that their £6 billion health and social care budget being devolved to the region. That’s something that I’ll be pushing for in Blackpool and lobbying Government ministers and shadow ministers for. With similar arrangements I believe we could make an enormous and co-ordinated impact.

The elections are upon us and I’ll be in trouble if I say too much in this particular space about them. This is a space for council business not party politics.

However, as Leader of the Council I would urge you, whoever you may support, to make sure you are registered to vote.

We have both local and general elections for the first time since 1997 so it’s vital that you make your vote count.

To check you’re registered, call our electoral services team on 477490 or 477161.

View the budget council meeting in full.

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.