Challenging negative preconceptions and creative “interventionist” approaches are key to meeting the social challenges in the country’s most densely populated seaside town, according to Blackpool BC’s chief executive.
Blackpool is commonly referenced in relation to the demise of coastal towns, with a focus on high levels of crime, addiction and ill-health.
While the proliferation of low-quality, private rented housing and a transient population poses significant challenges for the council, chief executive Neil Jack says the image of past glory fading into defeat and despair are very wide of the mark.
Mr Jack is particularly critical of the national media, which he says propagates a distorted image of a community on its knees when it remains “an enormously successful tourist resort”.
“There is a London-centric view of the world from organisations like the Guardian,” says Mr Jack. “They are not interested in the 18 million visitors, who are proportionately from a working class background and what they like to do.”
You have to be creative when you have a place like this – you can’t wait for the private sector to come and fill those gaps
For the council, infrastructure is key but, unlike other local authorities, this does not necessarily mean roads or more housing. The famous Blackpool Tower and Winter Gardens are council-owned, as is Blackpool Airport, the city’s tram system and a water park – all vital elements of maintaining tourism with significant revenue streams.
For example, an extensive refurbishment of the tram system saw passenger numbers soar from 1.5 million to 5.5 million annually, earning the council earned a dividend of £1m in 2017.
Mr Jack says: “As an organisation we are quite interventionist and manage different elements of risk to make sure we have got the right kind of infrastructure.
“You have to be creative when you have got a place like this - you can’t wait for the private sector to come and fill those gaps.”
He says the revenues generated from various infrastructure have given the council the capacity to prevent cuts to children’s centres and early family intervention services – vital in a town with of one the highest levels of children in care in the country.
The council has also managed to access key additional funding streams to develop new approaches in children’s services, which Mr Jack says is heralding “a cultural shift in how we approach those earliest years.”
For example, a total of £45m of National Lottery funding over 10 years has financed the launched of the Better Start programme. This focuses on children from conception to three years with the aim of improving school readiness.
The health visiting service has also been re-designed with input from health visitors, council staff and families resulting in the minimum mandatory visits being increased from five to eight.
In a town with a high level of homes of multiple occupancy and with the highest density of housing outside London, Mr Jack says the council sees “no benefit in housing growth” and is taking significant steps to improve the quality and distribution of homes instead.
Mr Jack says the five tower blocks and surrounding properties in the Queens Park estate were a “centre for misery” with high levels of crime and ill-health so “we blew them up”. Residents worked with the council on the design of the redevelopment “to make it a happier place”, resulting in the number of units decreasing from 519 units to 180.
Mr Jack says the move was detrimental to council funding because the net loss of homes removed any new homes bonus the council would have received from gains elsewhere.
“The government policies do not support [us] because numbers is all anybody is interested in, not quality,” says Mr Jack. “Government policy actually discouraged us from doing the right thing.”
Mr Jack says 84% of Blackpool’s private rented sector is “fuelled” by housing benefit and because housing allowance rates are set by the Valuation Office Agency, which includes wealthier surrounding areas, prices and quality are not aligned.
“It has been very difficult working with the Department for Work & Pensions to get them to devolve anything down to a local level because they like their one size fits all model,” he says.
Mr Jack also says universal credit wrongly assumes tenants will act “rationally” by seeking to get the best quality home for their money.
“A lot of people are running away from problems elsewhere, they don’t know what they are entitled to, they don’t understand what they could expect and they accept things that you wouldn’t accept,” he says. “They don’t come to us to complain about it, they accept it. The market has been driven by false values because of rent levels that are not linked to space, standards or quality in any sense.”