Budgets and Pensions

The Chief Executive and I have just finished a series of staff conferences, which we consider have been so successful we’d like them to become annual events. 

Over four sessions, we spoke to more than 1,000 staff both in the Winter Gardens and at Blackpool Football Club. 

The overwhelming feedback we received was that our staff welcomed the opportunity to speak directly with us, and have the chance to make suggestions and proposals about the way in which the Council could be more responsive and efficient in future.

It was a good opportunity to discuss some key decisions which will be coming up over the next few weeks and months, not least in respect of the Council’s budget, which is due to be set in February.

The headline figure, which you may have read about in the local press and in Your Blackpool, is a budget gap of £10 million – wholly due to cuts to our funding made by the Government.

The move follows on from previous reductions implemented this financial year which include a series of cost cutting measures such as £1.8m cut from the cost of senior managers, £2m from agreed reductions to staff terms and conditions, efficiency measures worth around £2.25m, cuts to members allowances and senior member positions saving £200k and job losses through a combination of volunteers, retirements and redundancies.

 I am hoping that we may be able to avoid compulsory redundancies by seeking volunteers and retirements and have asked the Chief Executive to ensure that compulsory redundancies will only be considered when all other savings measures have been exhausted.

My administration’s priority is to ensure that the services to the most vulnerable in our society will be saved and I will do all that I can to protect the front line. However, people should be in no doubt that thanks to the Government’s stance of public spending, we will be faced with difficult decisions that will impact directly on local communities.   

All of our services make a big difference to people’s lives and we have to find the fairest way to make sure that our decisions are carefully thought out.

We will ensure that there will be no attack on our libraries like there was last year, and we’ve committed to ensuring next year’s Illuminations will not bear the hallmarks of the cuts made last year. 

I am going to be asking staff to extend their agreement on revised terms and conditions for a further 12 months with the exception of car parking charges – so far their sacrifices have saved the jobs of over 100 of their colleagues, and ensured that a further £2 million has not had to be cut from frontline services – I hope they will feel able to take the brave step to extend this agreement, but I do understand how big an ask this is, especially with the economy still bumping along the bottom, and prices still rising in the shops.

With regards to car parking, while it is true that it saved  around £200k, it cost significant amounts to administer, reducing the total saved but has also caused issues in some local areas where on street parking has become an issue.

We are listening to our staff and our residents on this issue and are proposing to remove this charge in the next financial year.

The council will be consulting with residents on the forthcoming budget. For more details log on to www.blackpool.gov.uk/haveyoursay from early December.

Many of our staff will be on strike this coming Wednesday (as I myself will be), in protest at changes to public sector pensions. 

This will cause people inconvenience, and whilst I don’t like to see the citizens of Blackpool inconvenienced, I do think it will be an important opportunity to pause and reflect on how much public servants are taken for granted, and how valuable the work they do is to society as a whole. 

Sometimes the only way of drawing people’s attention (and especially Government’s attention) to a problem is to withdraw your labour. 

The simple truth is that hundreds of thousands of workers, especially low paid staff, part-time staff, and working women, are set to be much worse off under the current proposals, and all concerned need to indicate a willingness to engage in meaningful negotiations to find a deal that is fair to low paid workers and taxpayers alike.

For most of the last decade (when economic growth was consistently strong, in the region of 5%) growth in Blackpool was only around 2.5% – so even in the good times, we were lagging behind. 

Youth unemployment is soaring, and likely to get worse, and the notion of having any further widespread redundancies from the Council, as well as the spectre of pensioners having to exist on even less than they have now would not bode well for the economic future of Blackpool – not least the town centre.

We’re actively looking at ways to boost the town centre economy – the Central Business District proposals – including the new Sainsbury’s store, will create hundreds of new jobs. 

Moving council staff in to the town centre and out of our outlying offices (another key facet of the CBD proposals) should also act as a boost to shops, cafes and businesses in the area.  I can’t go into detail at the moment, but our medium term plans for the central car park site, and the Winter Gardens could provide hundreds, if not thousands of new jobs.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the need for a renewed focus on economic growth, and for all of the reasons set out above, I’m spending more and more time pursuing these aims, and pushing forward with plans for revitalising the local economy. 

What I am mindful of however, at all times, is that our staff and contractors are a big part of the local economy – and that we need to keep as many of them as possible in place, providing the life changing services they provide to the public, and supporting the town centre and wider Blackpool economy.  Therefore I take their pay, terms and conditions, pensions, and their views very seriously, and hope we’ll be able to move forward on the budget negotiations and discussions in a positive way over the coming weeks.

Working together

As I am rapidly discovering in this job, on most days there is a blend of good news and bad news.

The latest unemployment figures show that since January there has been a 87% rise in young people out of work for at least 6 months in the North West, but in Blackpool South, there has been a staggering 223% rise, and in Blackpool North and Cleveleys youth unemployment has risen by 283%. 

Last week we received confirmation that officially, between 20% and 25% of our young people are considered to be ‘not in education, employment or training’ (NEET in the jargon term for this, which we’re going to have to get used to hearing I’m afraid). In actual fact, however these figures mask a bigger problem – substantially more of our young people are notionally in some form of employment or training, but not actually undertaking activities that most of us would consider to be sustainable – there are all sorts of “training opportunities” out there, which don’t lead to much more than a certificate, and an awful lot of jobs which have few, if any prospects – often even any prospect of still being in existence beyond the first weekend in November. 

I would go so far as to suggest that in the region of HALF of our 16-24 year olds are not in stable education or employment.

As of October (crucially, BEFORE the season ended) there were more than 8 Jobseekers Allowance claimants for every job advertised in Blackpool Job Centres – compared to just over 4 this time last year. That means that on average, there are twice as many people chasing everyBlackpooljob as there are in the region as a whole. Last year, we were able to use the Future Jobs Fund to create 159 six months job opportunities in Blackpool (half of these people went on to get permanent jobs) – but sadly, the Government has stopped funding this scheme.

Add to this the loss of thousands of civil service jobs which are planned over the coming 12-24 months – I met members of the PCS union last week to discuss this problem, and have agreed to help them in their lobbying- and the potential loss of over 1000 posts at BAE in Warton – again, something that I have discussed with workplace representatives from UNITE the union – and we have a potential timebomb to deal with.

I am working with the Leader of Lancashire County Council, and the MP for Blackpool South, to make sure that an Enterprise Zone (and a meaningful one at that) is created in Warton, and I will be pressing the Government on arrangements for an Apprenticeship centre on this site – which is within the travel-to-work area for our young people. 

I have asked the Chief Executive to look at how the Council and its partner organisations make use of apprenticeships, and to look at ways of further encouraging our sub-contractors to use 100% local labour wherever humanly possible.  I met with Tourism Minister John Penrose MP earlier this week, and discussed proposals for a ‘Tourism Development Zone’ right here in Blackpool, which would offer incentives for existing private business to grow and new ones to relocate to the area, and I discussed a possible reduction in VAT with both him, and Ed Miliband, on his recent visit to Blackpool.

On the good news front, we’ve launched the ‘Give a little – help a lot’ campaign. The brainchild of my Deputy Leader’s wife, Pam Jackson, this represents a practical, here and now, approach to the issues of child poverty I’ve written about before. We are asking people to donate cash, toys or food to our appeal, to ensure that no child in Blackpool is left out this Christmas. 

We know that lots of good work goes on every year to do this, not least through organisations like the Salvation Army – but this year, we decided that the situation was so acute; it simply wasn’t possible to do too much.  I’ve been delighted by the response we’ve had so far, and we’ve only just got going. Council staff have been fantastic, and we’ve had some very generous individual donations as well.

What ties these two issues together, however, is the support I have had from the private sector and voluntary sector in the town. Both in my attempts to persuade the Government of the need to continue to invest in Blackpool (and to give us the tools to help ourselves to grow and regenerate) and in our attempts to get the ‘Give a little…’ campaign up and running. 

Merlin, Pleasure Beach Blackpool, Churches, Faith Groups, The Gazette, StayBlackpool and Blackpool BID, to name but a few, have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with us in our campaigning for the town, and I do not doubt they will continue to do so. 

We need more of this. Working together to build the town’s reputation and profile can only be a positive move. We need to be honest with ourselves, and our neighbours, about what the problems are – respect each others strengths and weaknesses, and allow those with good ideas to get on and turn them into action. 

Public, private, community and voluntary sectors demonstrating to the Government exactly what we are capable of, and earning the trust and the confidence of those who can assist us in our collective aims – that’s what it is all about. 

Thanks everyone!


*To find out more about how you can help with the ‘Give a Little, Help a Lot’ campaign, click here

Local Government’s Future

Can I thank everyone who has contacted me about the blog – rarely do politicians receive such comprehensively positive feedback for an idea – I shall relish it whilst it lasts!

My party had its Regional Conference in Blackpool over the weekend, and I was asked to take part in a Question and Answer session on the future of Local Government. Whilst I hope I managed to answer a few points, I went away from the event asking myself a number of questions about what our future will look like.

The Government clearly sees the future for local government being one of commissioning services from a wide variety of providers – rather than directly providing services, as they have traditionally done. I’m wary about this approach for a number of reasons. 

  • Will the services delivered be of the same quality? 
  • Will the staff who deliver these services get paid at a decent rate, and have decent terms and conditions of employment?
  • Will the necessity for any private sector provider to make a profit out of the service damage the service?

We have looked at, and will continue to look at, whether traditional models of service delivery are the best way forward – quite simply because we have to – our income is falling sharply every year due to Government cuts. But I am clear that a central part of that dialogue has to be that I don’t want to see public money being diverted into the pockets of gigantic US conglomerates – nor do I want to see service levels fall unnecessarily.

The creation of Arms Length Management Organisations, like Blackpool Coastal Housing, encouraging a co-operative approach, or staff buy-outs, are all systems which have been, and are being trialled, across the UK, by progressive Local Authorities, and I remain open-minded about these possibilities.

To bury our heads in the sand, and imagine that we can in some way be immune from unusual, but clear Government policy and harsh funding decisions would be to deny ourselves the opportunity to make sure that we emerge from this situation stronger, and able to continue to drive forward the positive changes we wish to see in our community, for the benefit of this, and future generations.

Cllr Simon Blackburn


Firstly, welcome to the Leader’s Blog!  You will be relieved to know that after my well publicised problems with Facebook earlier in the year, I’m not actually allowed to write on here directly – I have to email what I want to say to someone responsible, who vets it, and then posts it up as long as I haven’t said anything daft….

It has taken a bit longer to get the blog up and running than I would have liked – which is entirely my fault.  You will all have noticed that there have been some fairly big changes at the Town Hall end of the operation since the elections in May. 

Senior Management reductions had to happen – not because people weren’t doing a good job – far from it – but because councils up and down the UK are facing a huge and (sadly) probably irreversible cut in their funding over the next 3 years. It simply wasn’t realistic to expect people earning at the lower end of the income scale to keep taking the pain.  As staff numbers fall, and middle manager numbers fall, it is only fair for the number of Directors and Executive Directors to fall as well. The changes we made to the top structure will deliver savings of £1.8 million over the next four years.

For the same reason, elected members have taken a pay cut.  We refused to take the rise that was being offered to us, freezing our basic allowance at £5,998.98 per year. We have also torn up the rule which meant our allowances were pegged to inflation (so they went up automatically every year, no matter how bad the financial circumstances). Now we have pegged our allowances to the NJC pay scale – so if staff get 2%, we get 2% – if staff get nothing, neither do we. 

My colleagues and I felt we wanted to go further and have all taken a 5% cut in our Special Responsibility Allowances, these are paid to Councillors who have specific roles, ranging from Vice Chairs of Committees – who now receive £2,137 a year (down from £2,250) – through to the Leader of the Council who now receives £19,948 (down from £20,998).

We also decided that for the first time, senior councillors should do what staff have to and therefore senior councillors now pay 1% of their allowances for their car-parking permit. We also slashed our mileage rate from 62p per mile to 40p and have banned first class travel for councillors – a perk which we felt was well past its sell by date.

In addition to this, we abolished a considerable number of positions – Cabinet Assistants, Overview and Scrutiny Chairs and Vice Chairs have all been done away with.  Taken together, these changes deliver a net saving of over £200,000 over the next four years – money which can instead be spent on front line services and protecting front line jobs.

We’ve also got a new Chief Executive. Steve Weaver was a fantastic servant to both the people of Blackpool and the staff of Blackpool Council – we owe him a great deal. He, however, decided the time was right for him to retire from the council and I thank him for his service.

Opting not to spend tens of thousands of pounds using expensive recruitment consultants, we advertised the post in our own website and on the regional site, ‘Your Council Jobs’. This in itself attracted national attention as we knew it would and we had a fantastically talented pool of candidates from across the country and in the end had no problem at all in making the superb appointment of Neil Jack.

I have worked closely with Neil during his tenure as Director of Finance for Blackpool Coastal Housing and know that he has a fantastic insight into the worlds of housing and local government finance – two areas which are a top priority for the council.

We are reversing the decision taken by the previous administration to close Boundary Library (using some of the money saved by the above measures) and Grange Park councillors are busy investing their ward budgets in new books and IT equipment. Bucking recent trends, usage figures at the library are UP, not down. There is a real sense of ownership amongst the local community, having seen their library threatened with closure, they’re embracing it like never before. 

We’re hoping to do the same for Mereside Library as well – watch this space. 

Working with Trade Unions, we’ve also saved Hoyle House – and the jobs that were at risk, ensuring that vital rehabilitation services will continue to be delivered to the most vulnerable.

You’ll have noticed a great deal of media activity around the issue of Child Poverty.  There are two ways that politicians can deal with stuff like this – you can gloss over it, be precious about our image as a holiday destination, and try to play down the issue – or you can be clear about the scale of the problem and clear about what you intend to do to tackle it. 

Incredibly, this Council has not had either a transience strategy or a child poverty strategy – despite me and my fellow Labour councillors banging on about it for the last 4 years. Now we’re able to do this. 

Both areas are currently under great scrutiny, and I have a team of highly experienced councillors and officers working towards drawing up these two vital documents – the starting point for what has to be a ruthless war on want and poverty in Blackpool.

I believe that at least 30% of the children in our town are living in relative poverty -the figure may be even higher – a shocking state of affairs in a place like Britain.

We’ll shortly announce details of our plan to work with the local community, faith groups and charities to try and do something practical and meaningful now, to help make a difference to these children’s’ lives this Christmas.

I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible in the near future, both Blackpool Council staff and local residents. I want to set out to you what I believe our priorities for the next four years should be – to see if you agree, and to understand how best you think that the Chief Exec and I can facilitate the improvements and progress that I know we all want to see. 

Blackpool’s Fairness Commission will be launched in the New Year – which I am determined will be a lasting legacy which makes clear our determination to ensure fairness in everything we do, with nobody left behind.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for the hard work and dedication I see around me every day.  I feel very proud to lead an organisation which is blessed with so many talented, committed and innovative people – I never have to stop and worry whether what we want to achieve is too ambitious or too intricate.

I’m always confident that as long as our staff understand what we are trying to do, they will make sure the job gets done, and done well.

I also appreciate the excellent work done in Blackpool by other public organisations like our brilliant schools, the Police, the PCT and the Hospital Trust as well as some of the truly innovative and inspiring work that the voluntary sector does. Not to forget as well the amazing contributions of individuals who I meet who just want to make a difference, help a neighbour.

Thanks again.

Cllr Simon Blackburn