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?

Twenty-one days smoke-free as part of my Stoptober challenge

We are half way through Stoptober and I won’t pretend quitting smoking is easy.

Having said that I have managed not to strangle anyone, although a few people have come closer than they realise.

In recent weeks my partner, Emma and I have welcomed a new addition to the family – a eight week old Labrador puppy called Bentley. While Bentley is proving to be a great distraction there is nothing like the challenge of puppy training and sleepless nights to make you crave a stress relieving cigarette

The good new is I have now been smoke free for 21 days now.

The cold turkey method I espoused in my first blog went out of the window a while ago and I am now using a mouth spray to replace the lost nicotine.

The Stop Smoking Service has been a big help – the level of support they offer is phenomenal and they have been indispensable in helping me through these first couple of weeks.  Doreen (my Stoptober advisor at the NHS Blackpool Stop Smoking Service), has been fantastic, really motivational and very understanding when I forget appointments, or ring up at the last minute for a prescription.

I visit once a week and she prescribes me the sprays which have been a help – not least financially – these sprays cost £18 each – but on prescription I only have to pay the NHS fee (£7.85) and of course anyone who qualifies for free prescriptions doesn’t even have to part with that.  I do notice that nicotine replacement products are not a readily available as they ought to be.  Surely they should sell these sprays, patches and inhalers everywhere that cigarettes are sold?

People show their nice side when you are having a tough time or when they can see that you are trying. Since my blog was published I am regularly asked how I am doing which is extremely kind – I was asked three times in church alone this Sunday – and people seem genuinely pleased and proud when I tell them I’m still “clean” so to speak

It would be a lie to say I do not miss smoking but all I have to do is think of the damage I’m doing to myself, think of Blackpool’s health problems that exist as a result of smoking, think of my children and that all helps bring me back in line.

I can already feel a difference in terms of my lungs, but the sense of taste and smell doesn’t seem to be returning as was promised (I’m wondering if 25 years of 20 a day, and 20 years of neat whiskey as my tipple of choice has permanently damaged my senses!)

According to the public health team my body is recovering from being dulled by the hundreds of toxic chemicals found in cigarettes – and my carbon monoxide levels are demonstrably falling, as is my lung “age”.

It is facts like this that remind me why I am taking part in Stoptober and make me so passionate that others try it too.  Without wanting to engage in the sort of background nagging that I have myself been subjected to for the last 25 years (from my Mum, my partner, my ex, my kids and many, many others)….

If you are a smoker and have seen the adverts on TV, heard them on the radio and read about Stoptober in the press – the idea of quitting is surely on your mind, and now really is the time to do it.

And even if it isn’t, give it a go. You can start the 28-day stop smoking challenge anytime throughout October and the same support and guidance will be available. Do not use that as an excuse.

Give the Blackpool Stop Smoking Service a call on 01253 651570 or email them at  to see how they can help you kick the habit for good.

Good luck and keep going!

To find out more about Stoptober, and to access the support available, visit: https://stoptober.smokefree.nhs.uk/

Stoptober and why I’m taking part

As the leader of a large authority with some pretty shocking statistics of tobacco related diseases, I’m no stranger to the dangers of smoking.

I’m also no stranger to a packet of fags either having carried one around in my pocket, smoking the contents at a rate of around 20 a day, for most of my adult life.

But with the town’s public health team now a vital part of Blackpool Council (and breathing down my neck to set an example) I’ve been toying with the idea of quitting for a while.

It’s getting very awkward – take last month.

The public health team won an award for the work they’ve done on tackling smoking rates in Blackpool.

Great news I thought and, keen to support the staff for their hard work, I said I would go along to the ceremony to watch them collect the award.

But my addiction got the better for me and, whilst no one was looking (or so I thought), I nipped outside for “crafty” cigarette.

I was rumbled almost immediately, of course, and the irony was not lost on me.

Reprimanded by the team I was told I was taking part in Stoptober, the national 28-day stop smoking challenge.

I agreed to try – I want to quit smoking for good, I’ve just not managed to do it yet.

I know the damage it does to my health, I’m more than aware that many of the town’s health problems that stem from smoking, and most importantly, I’ve got three children and don’t want to be a bad example to them.

Having attempted to kick the habit several times before, I’ve tried everything from patches and gums to nasal sprays; you name it and I’ve probably given it a go.

This time I’ve opted to go cold turkey and simply cut it out, with any luck for good.

I have no doubt that it will be difficult but this time I want to succeed.

I’ll keep you updated on my progress and share any tips or snippets of advice that work for me.

If you’re reading this thinking it all sounds a bit similar and that you too have been thinking about quitting, now is the time to do it.

And even if you haven’t, I urge the smokers out there to give Stoptober a go.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve missed the beginning of the month, don’t use that as an excuse – you can start anytime.

There is so much support and advice available from the Blackpool Stop Smoking Service, give them a call on 01253 651570 or email them at to see how they can help you quit smoking for good.

Good luck!

To find out more about Stoptober, and to access the support available, visit: https://stoptober.smokefree.nhs.uk/


As the leader of a large local authority like Blackpool you become very used to the non-stop juggernaut that is the press.

In this 24/7 news media environment the internet age has created, news is incessant and unending.

The Gazette, Radio Wave and BBC Radio Lancashire are in daily contact with the Council and don’t miss an opportunity to report even the smallest contentious issue.

To give them their due, they are also very accommodating when the council has something to say.

Reporters from the regional and national media turn up for the big stuff, film shots of the Tower and the beach (often making snide remarks in the process) and we never see them again.

It’s the way it works and, generally, I welcome the media’s work; it’s healthy for democracy and criticism is par for the course.

I understand too that newspapers will often, rather than report from a neutral standpoint, flag wave for a particular policy or position they support. They are all perfectly entitled to do so.

That comes with great social responsibility though and, at times, a line can be crossed.

In my view that happened in Thursday night’s Gazette.

“STOP THIS NOW – BEFORE YOU DAMAGE BLACKPOOL FOREVER,” one of their inside pages ordered the council.

What were they talking about?

Were councilors planning to pull the Tower down?

Were they looking to build houses on StanleyPark?

Actually we had enraged them by having the temerity to ask the public their opinions on whether or not it might be sensible for people to knock the booze on the head by 3am.

This is probably a good point at which to introduce a bit of context.

This week Blackpool was revealed to have the lowest male life expectancy in the country with drink being one of the biggest contributing factors.

A report by the Guardian this week described the town as having “catastrophic” levels of liver cirrhosis. (here)

There are hundreds of other health indicators I could list to contextualise that particular problem but, as The Gazette so vociferously pointed out at the time, a television show did that more effectively than I ever could.

Step forward “999…What’s Your Emergency?”

The Channel 4 show, much to our chagrin, painted a bleak picture of Blackpool and, particularly, town centre nightlife.


Now, just like the BBC can make the most ordinary day of football look like a thrilling goal-fest by boiling it all down into an hour’s worth of Match of the Day, the show painted an impactful and perhaps somewhat misleading picture.

But the evidence is there for all to see regardless of editing and town centre trouble is a problem whatever statistics you want to go by.

I acknowledged as much at the time, spoke frankly and promised action, being commended for doing so in The Gazette’s editorial, I seem to recall.

Yet now, when the Council has the audacity to consult on a measure that might contribute to toning down that type of behavior, we are pilloried.

Don’t cry for me Blackpool; I can take it on the chin. I’m merely pointing out the irony.

As part of their coverage on Thursday, the council was asked whether consulting on the EMRO was “a knee-jerk reaction” to the show.

The spokesman who answered the questions replied: “No.”

It’s an extremely insulting question, symptomatic of the confrontational way in which this story was approached, and I’m not sure what type of answer they were expecting.

“Yes, we came up with it and wrote it on the back of a fag packet after a few cans,” perhaps?

I won’t analyse every aspect of the coverage and I’m not looking to campaign for or against an EMRO.

It’s for the Licensing Committee to make a recommendation under a free vote based on the evidence brought forward.

But I felt the stance taken was disproportionate, inconsistent and, above all, socially irresponsible.

Championing Blackpool businesses is something The Gazette has done very effectively and I admire their efforts in doing so.

They’re working with the council on an apprenticeship scheme right now.

But let’s be very clear – and this is where I feel their coverage was disproportionate – at present introducing an EMRO would lead to two nightclubs closing a couple of hours earlier.

To present this as though this would drop a nuclear bomb on Blackpool’s economy is quite frankly ludicrous.

Despite their very ardent position and strong belief that the EMRO may damage the town, outlined in the Editor’s blog, The Gazette themselves have not submitted a consultation response.

That leads me to ask are they really supporting the businesses of the town or just trying to sell papers?

What truly astonished me, however, was the backslapping that came the following day.

A self-congratulatory article blustered that The Gazette had done “a vital job raising issues.”

In an article containing five quotes, three of those quotes came from people from an umbrella of companies who would be directly affected if the EMRO is introduced.

What’s more, if the paper had really wanted to share the issues with the people of Blackpool they would have started their drum beating a little earlier than a few hours before the consultation closed.

The most irksome aspect and the part that really saddens me, however, is the lack of social responsibility.

At no stage in the four page “special report” did The Gazette acknowledge the number of lives that are ruined through alcohol-related violence.

From rapes and sexual assaults, domestic violence and even murder to your straightforward pub fight, the cost to families is enormous.

In the Editor’s column, Jon Rhodes, admits that there are violent scenes but questioned “are we really so much worse than anywhere else?”

As Council Leader I’m not willing to accept “oh well, it happens everywhere,” and carry on as if there’s no issue.

I’ve been forthright in my praise of our local newspaper previously and was quoted in their 150th issue praising their role in society in Blackpool and I know these are difficult times for newspapers with staffing levels not what they once were.

But this time I think they’ve got it badly wrong and I would urge them to look again at their position.

I thank each and every person that has responded to the EMRO consultation.

You have gone about expressing your views in the right way.

While, as I’ve said, this is a decision which is out of my hands and the recommendation will be made by the Licensing Committee, I know that every comment will be taken into account.

The EMRO decision is not a done deal; far from it.

Until all the views have been heard and all the facts have been discussed no decision will be made.

But before The Gazette claims to speak on behalf of the town again I suggest they cast their net wider, think a little harder and try to look at things in their social context, as the Council must do, rather than as one, isolated headline-grabbing story.

Breakfast revolution backed by leading academics

“A breakfast revolution,” the headline writers called it when the idea of providing all children with free breakfasts in schools was first launched.

Fast forward seven months and the revolution has been realised; more than 11,000 breakfasts are being served every school day and children are no longer starting lessons on an empty stomach.

It’s a sea change for schools, for teachers, for children and for Blackpool Council and, as a nationwide first, I don’t mind the tag “revolution” at all.

As I’ve said all along though we believe it was a vital thing to do – the overwhelming evidence from teachers told us that.

But don’t just take my word for it.

This week saw the release of a study by Northumbria University, who are internationally renowned for their research into school meals and, in particular, breakfasts.

Their team of respected academics, including developmental psychologists, health psychologists, nutritionists and statisticians, studied a sample of Blackpool schools to analyse the effectiveness of the pilot.

And their findings were overwhelmingly positive, concluding that children were eating more healthy items for breakfast, as well as feeling happier and more alert.

They found the benefits we envisaged for classroom punctuality and performance were becoming a reality.

On top of that, 70 per cent of children are taking part – an uptake level we are satisfied with given the need for parental opt-out choice.

The study also found that making breakfast available to all children – rather than offering them on a means-tested basis – was preventing the stigmatisation that can come with providing a scheme for a limited few.

The researchers, led by Dr Margaret Defreyter, also picked up on a few interesting new points.

They suggested that we look at the start time of breakfast, indicating that starting earlier could help punctuality, while suggesting that it may be better to ensure children eat the breakfast outside classrooms, rather than in as some schools have chosen to do, to prevent disruption.

They suggested healthier alternatives to some of the current products on offer and suggested further training of staff on nutritional knowledge and other aspects.

And they also suggested further engagement with parents, schools and governors is crucial to ensure the scheme is beneficial in the long term.

These are issues staff have been picking up throughout too and which we will be considering ahead of the new school year.

A final point which we have also seized upon is the need for further work to improve children’s health, this time through exercise.

I can announce today that we will also be considering a proposal to introduce online exercise programme “Cyber Coach Smart” into all primary school classrooms.

This programme has been developed specifically for use in primary classes, allowing teachers to stream exercise routines onto whiteboards via the internet, and averting the need for specialist coaching training or hugely expensive sporting facilities.

We hope the programme, coupled with making sure children receive a healthy and nutritious breakfast each day, will give youngsters a much better chance at succeeding in education and in life.

Finally, I thank all parents, pupils and the Blackpool residents who have supported the idea. Long may it continue.

Viva la breakfast revolution!

Helping the hardest hit

A report issued last week by academics from Sheffield Hallam University (here) claimed Blackpool was the area of the country “hardest hit” by the Government’s welfare cuts.

This is no great surprise; in fact, it backs up what we have been saying for months.

While some areas of the south are barely touched by the changes, residents across northern towns and cities like Blackpool are suffering.

We are doing what we can to help our residents through these desperately difficult times though.

We’ve introduced a free breakfasts scheme so that every primary school pupil can start the day with a healthy meal, saving parents money and making a social commitment to driving up standards in the future by giving children the best possible start.

The scheme has now been extended until May, at that point the Cabinet will meet to discuss the research carried out by University of Northumbria and decide the future of the scheme.

We’ve frozen council tax and we’ve implemented a living wage scheme for staff putting extra money in the pockets of our lowest paid workers.

Some people might be surprised to hear that over 200 of our staff were paid less than the living wage prior to April.

You might also be surprised to know that a survey by the National Association of Pension Funds earlier this year found that the average pension of a local government worker is £4,882 per year – not quite the picture that people like to paint about local government workers.

These initiatives can help in a small way but there’s only so much we can do as a council when, year-on-year, the Government makes devastating cuts to our budgets.

One of the biggest ongoing causes for concern is the changes that have been made to housing benefit, in particular the under-occupation of homes.

Blackpool Coastal Housing (BCH) have done an incredible amount of work to try to engage with residents (here) about the changes but, despite their best efforts, some people have, unfortunately, buried their heads and hoped the problem will go away.

It won’t, and now the changes are upon us, those people may be feeling the pinch.

There is a large range of support available, however, and I would urge people to make contact with BCH if they are having trouble on 477942.

Looking to the more positive side of things and speaking of housing, Blackpool Council Executive this week signed off the next steps for two key housing developments. (here)

Both schemes, at Queens Park and Rigby Road, are absolutely vital in providing quality housing for local people for decades to come.

It won’t be a quick and easy process but progress is being made.

And finally, I was keen to highlight some fantastic news that has been coming out from FYCreatives and the council’s business support team.

Latest figures show that an amazing 750 businesses have been helped to get off the ground since 2007 thanks to business loans and support from the council.

This is remarkable feat and really backs up our policy of supporting small and medium size businesses I look forward to hearing more success stories from them.

Finally, as I was preparing this post, I was informed that former Mayor of Blackpool, Alderman Edmund Wynne has passed away.

I was delighted to be able to name one of our new Flexity trams after Edmund a few months ago, and delighted that he was well enough at the time to be able to attend the unveiling with his family, and have his photograph taken with “his” tram.

Edmund always represented the ward in which he lived.

A former Leader of the Liberal Party in Blackpool, he was a man of great intellect, passion and dedication, to both the town and to his family – in whose achievements he took justifiable pride.

Our thoughts are with his son Robert, daughter-in-law Gaynor and his Grandchildren.

Evaluating breakfasts

At a time of diminishing central Government cash, and with Councils hamstrung by the need for referenda to approve the most modest of Council Tax increases, there can surely be no scope for growth items in our forthcoming budgets?

On the contrary, I believe it is a vital part of demonstrating Local Government’s leadership role within our communities.

If we don’t identify specific local need, and develop policies to address that need, how can we claim to be in touch with those whom we strive to serve?

The nation’s assembled media descended upon us in January for the launch of Blackpool Council’s free school breakfast pilot scheme.

And I dare say, after a few hours work at one of our excellent primary schools, many of them were a bit peckish and didn’t much feel like working until they got a good meal.

I’m happy to say though for the next few months at least, and I hope long into the future, that won’t be the case for the young children of the town.

Under our radical proposals, all 12,000 primary school pupils will receive a healthy breakfast, to kick start their day in the right way.

This, we believe, will help them to focus on learning and not rumbling tummies, allowing teachers to do their job and giving the children the best possible opportunity to succeed.

We need to create a generation of children who understand the importance of nutrition, who will then go on to provide that nutrition to their children.

The idea has been well supported by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) and welcomed by the Children’s Society, whose research suggests the scheme is much needed.

I’m excited to see its effect, although I suspect much of that will only be demonstrated in the medium to long term.  We will be working with academics from a leading University to ensure that the pilot scheme is robustly assessed against key performance indicators and statistical analysis – that is the evidence base upon which future decisions will be taken

There are naysayers, of course, but I’m happy to tackle them head on.

Some have questioned the need for universality – providing free breakfasts to everyone. But restricting breakfast to those on benefits massively stigmatises the recipients and loses all of the benefits of communal eating.

And what about working parents – where families are working often the day is very long for their children. The day starts early and children are up and out to stay with grandparents or neighbours and friends until the school day begins. By the time they get to school it can be some time since they had their breakfast and they are often hungry and ready for something to eat – if you’ve had your breakfast at 6.00 it is a long time until lunch time.

Others have said it rewards poor parenting. I prefer to look on it as ensuring children do not become victims of poor parenting, providing them with a culture of healthy eating and learning, which will lead to improved educational attainment.

It also costs a fair bit of money at a time when jobs are being lost within the council and outside – very true. However, the scheme will save money for hardworking families, put money back into our local economy through local sourcing and create jobs for support staff.

If anyone wants to argue the toss with me over whether the wellbeing and nutrition of the children of Blackpool is a priority, I’ll happily have that debate.  If others are content to allow the current financial climate to paralyse our inherent sense of fairness and fetter our ambition for our children, then so be it.

In the meantime I’ll be working to make the policy a success and push things forward.  The rewards we stand to reap from this programme in years to come (improved attendance, behaviour, attainment – and therefore ultimately a more healthy, highly skilled and appealing workforce) will come in direct proportion to our willingness to sow the seeds of hope and opportunity today.