For a town whose motto is ‘Progress’, it can often seem like one step forward, two steps back. The controversies over 999 Emergency seem to encapsulate that, and as a Member of Parliament for the northern part of the town, I share the frustration that only one side of the Blackpool we know is being portrayed.
I welcome Cllr Blackburn’s open letter as an honest recognition of the need for real change in the town. Politicians have a difficult task. We can talk about the problems we see around the town, and then we are easily accused of ‘talking the town down’. Fail to refer to them, and we are accused of being out-of-touch, and living in cloud cuckoo land. It is a delicate balancing act, but I don’t believe you can adequately represent the town unless you are confident about the future, optimistic about our potential, but honest about the problems we face, and doing all you can to bring some strategic focus to local discussions.
Cllr Blackburn paints a bleak portrait of the Blackpool he sees, perhaps too bleak in some eyes, but I would go out of my way to emphasise the many positives there are in this town. Descending into party politics in responding to Cllr Blackburn’s honesty helps no-one in my view, but I am glad that Cllr Blackburn is recognising what is driving my support for the difficult process of welfare reform we are engaged in as a Government, as we try to ensure that those who are seeking to do the right thing are rewarded. As my colleague, our group leader Cllr Tony Williams, commented ‘it’s acknowledged that the state no longer has all the solutions and the money to fix all society’s problems’.
With an ageing population, whose healthcare costs will increase as a share of the population, the fact we have to spend so much in the town on treating alcohol and drug dependency is something that should concern us all, as it is money not available to care for the growing elderly population, for example. The easy answer is to turn our backs on those struggling with such dependencies, and walk by on the other side. That can never be the case. We need only remember the recent run of stories in the Gazette about the challenges so many homeless charities face. It would be easy for this town to turn in on itself, and throw up the barriers to keep everyone out, but that is not a workable solution. Ensuring the various parts of our healthcare economy work in harmony is.
But I don’t believe that is right for the future of either Blackpool or the Fylde as a whole. We all recognise that times are tough. Yes, crime is falling, the economy is out of recession, the numbers in employment growing, with 2,000 new private sector jobs in my own constituency alone since May 2010. But that doesn’t mean that there are jobs for everyone, that working people are struggling still to make ends meet, or that elderly people continue to struggle to get the care and support they need.
Recognising this doesn’t mean I buy into the notion that Blackpool is somehow broken, bowed beneath the weight of social problems. Yes, need is ever present. Discussing with local churches the setting up of a local food bank, I was forcefully reminded of a fact that always lurks at the back of my mind, which is that there is no ward in the Blackpool part of my constituency which is below the national average for child poverty. But hope does and must exist, and that hope lies with the many voluntary sector organisations, social enterprises and charities who have sometimes felt shut out in recent years.
I do believe that Cllr Blackburn’s letter demonstrates that the Council is at a crossroads in how it views the town and its role with regard to the town. I hope it means he no longer believes that the Council alone can solve every problem, as that would be welcomed by the many voluntary sector organisations who have felt frozen out of the Council’s discussions in recent years. From youth organisations to social enterprises, we have so much to offer in Blackpool that is not wholly funded from the public purse. They need to be welcomed into the Town Hall, and seen as part of the solution, rather than a threat to monolithic control where the Council pulls every lever.
But we must never be despondent. I met with community leaders in Grange Park last week to discuss how we can build on the progress already being made in the area. It has always been my belief that Grange Park gets a raw deal in terms of its reputation. It has very strong ties of community, and some great local leadership, but too often there is a focus on a few negative aspects. Yet the reality of Grange Park is a world away from the image upon which many base their assessment – just as is the case with Blackpool as a whole.
I remain profoundly convinced that a key task for a Council of any political persuasion is to reconnect the town centre with its residents. It is too frequent a comment to me in surveys, emails and conversations to ignore the fact that people do not feel that it is ‘their’ town centre anymore. Too many tell me they rarely go, and that, just as much as the general economic situation, is what lies behind the empty shops we all hate to see. This is not to say we turn our back on the visitors that sustain a key pillar of our economy, but we have to find a balance that restores Blackpool to its residents as well.
We need to ask whether the ever-changing traffic issues and a seeming anti-car philosophy at times in the town centre are not dividing us as a community to the point that I am finding jobseekers sanctioned by the Jobcentre when they express a lack of confidence that they can get adequately from one end of the town to the other by public transport during rush hour. Where is thefairness in that? The town centre risks becoming a physically-isolated island which occupies the bulk of the Council’s attention, but is somewhere that locals feel adecreasing connection with. That would be, above all, a tragedy for our town, and needs urgently addressing.
I hope the Fairness Commission looks more widely than a narrow remit of what the Council termed as ‘increasing equality’. I don’t believe that is our most pressing concern. What we really need to promote is human dignity, however steep, hard and arduous the climb to that objective is. Maybe we need to rename the Fairness Commission the Blackpool Commission, and look at the town’s future in the round, and answer the question of where we want the town to be in 2020.
Unlike Cllr Blackburn, I am not a socialist. But that doesn’t mean I reject his objective of supporting the genuinely sick, those who have disabilities, and those who are jobless but trying their best to resolve that. The paths to that goal may diverge, and we may not believe other agendas will get us there, but they are the cornerstone of our political debate.
I welcome the fact that Cllr Blackburn recognises neither he nor his Council group can do it all alone. I stand ready to play my part and offer my thoughts – for example, I have already been in touch with the new Chairman of the Fairness Commission to meet to discuss my perspective on their task. Whatever political persuasion we are, our pride in the town should come first. If Cllr Blackburn wants to meet me – and it would be the first time he’s done so officially since he took control of the Council – he’ll find someone with lots of ideas on the problems we face, but someone who continues to believe in an outward-looking Blackpool, eager to find its place in the regional economy, keen to create jobs and offer the sense of hope he recognises is crucial to sustaining a culture of aspiration. We must not fall prey to the danger of thinking our horizons should stop at the end of the M55.
Everywhere I go, people react with great warmth and fondness for the town when they hear where I am MP for. There is every reason to be proud of the world’s greatest seaside resort, and not succumb to despair. It is not alone amongst seaside towns in facing difficult social changes, nor is the diagnosis a new one, having existed under previous governments. We all remember the civic pride that burst out when Blackpool FC got promoted to the Premiership. That feel-good factor needs to be nourished and sustained, so that even on the drabbest of November days, we can still face the future with a confidence that the sun can still shine on Blackpool.