Council leader Simon Blackburn opens up about his life, politics, inspirations and dealing with the critics.
All councillors are social workers of sorts. Or should be.
Simon Blackburn, 38, the leader of Blackpool Council and its 28 Labour Party members, fits that description perfectly.
And he is slap bang on the frontline.
He is assistant manager of Bay House, Blackpool, which accommodates 30 young people with “challenging behaviour.”
“Beds are seldom empty,” he says. “Sadly I can never see a day when this service won’t be required.”
It’s on a dead end, down a back street in South Shore, but offers a future for those prepared to make a go of it.
The area’s run down but picking up. Some houses are boarded up, even while occupied. Shops sell the sort of tat which only seems good value on £53 a week.
But it is somehow fitting.
One of Blackburn’s early actions as council leader was to reverse a nearby one way road system where traders’ fortunes plummeted with the loss of passing trade.
Another was to reopen a community library at Grange Park, another socially deprived area.
One former library, long closed, reopens soon as a church-initiated project. “Amen to that,” says the committed Christian who says he “ignored or rejected” his faith until he matured into it.
Now it’s as much part of what makes him tick as his politics.
He’s been a red since the age of eight when he thought Michael Foot would trounce Margaret Thatcher. ‘No chance, lad,’ said his dad, a Tory and self-made man. He said much the same a year later of Jesse Jackson’s presidential prospects.
“Shows how much times can change,” says Blackburn, “But it made me wonder why have elections when everyone knows the result?”
Come 2003, then a politics and social policy student cramming for his finals, veteran Labour lioness Pat Carrington persuaded him to stand for Squires Gate, a seat “we historically lost.”
Blackburn stood to make up the numbers. After originally being up for Squires Gate he then switched to Bloomfield after the original Labour candidate dropped out. “I was right at the bottom of the list. Nobody had heard of me,” he says.
He was up against the late Doreen Holt, a Lib Dem, well respected, but of whom his running mate Mary Smith said: “She’s been Tory, Independent, Lib Dem, she would stand for the Breakfast Party to get in.”
He says it wasn’t on his radar to win – until he attended a Labour meeting in the main council chamber at the Town Hall, saw the sun streaming in, and thought, “Wow.”
He got home and told his then partner, now councillor and cabinet member Gillian Campbell: “We’ve got a problem – I’ve sat in that council chamber and now I really want to win it.”
He won by a margin so narrow, “14-16 votes”, there were two recounts. Gillian, the feisty Scot he met while working in Edinburgh, took his place at Squires Gate.
“She was pregnant with our second child. Her waters broke and she couldn’t make the count,” he says.
“As I was about to take a swig of beer to celebrate the midwife called from the Vic and said she was pleased for me but my place was at my partner’s side.”
Regan, coming up for 10 on May 2, was born at 8am next day.
“She’s a chip off the old block. Borrowed a pound off her mum for a Comic Relief mask the other day. Came home with a David Cameron mask. ‘Why?’ Gill asked. So I can punch him, she replied.”
Their three children have a “considerable social conscience.” Xavier, 16 in June, joined Labour at 14.
Skye’s five this month. “She cares about other people too.”
Their parents separated after 17 years in February last year.
“It was a tough time,” says Blackburn. “We lived together 17 years and she tolerated my persistent absences, and lateness, and lying there at night because I couldn’t sleep.
“We remain the best of friends. She’s one of the best, most instinctive politicians I know. She is doing a phenomenal job not just representing Grange Park but in the housing and enforcement portfolio. She is made for that job.”
He has a woman, who has no connection with the council, in his life, but says: “I don’t want to discuss it. My kids come first. I’m coy. I’m content, happy in my personal life.”
He moved into the Miners’ Home after the split, hated it. Six months of “noise, cold, could be any flat in any block.”
He now lives at Marton Moss “on the sort of quiet street taxi drivers have never heard of.”
The break-up coincided with the budget - and his decision to quit social work.
“I’d started working for Lancashire County Council just after becoming leader of Blackpool in 2010.
“I worked there for 18 months until January 2012. It was long enough to realise it wasn’t practical to lead a single tier council and be that sort of social worker.
“I was an initial response frontline emergency social worker, so could be in hospital removing a new born baby from a mother one minute, in court over a care order the next, then jumping in the car from Fleetwood or St Annes to go to the Town Hall to slug it out with the Tories.
“It takes a completely different set of skills to remove a baby from the arms of a mother at two days old than it does to go head to head with opposition councillors.
“Councillors aren’t well paid so there were financial implications. Councillors get paid but not enough to live on. It was also at the time of my separation from Gillian.”
The job at Bay House fitted the bill.
Now coming up to his 10th year on the council, Labour leader for three, leader of the council for two, he gives himself six, maybe seven, more years there – if the electorate agrees.
“I don’t want to do this job forever,” he says. “I’ve also made it clear I don’t want to stand for Parliament. What do you do? Sit in Westminster on the back benches with your hand up when the Labour Party tell you to put your hand up?
“I genuinely feel I can make more difference in a local authority, particularly a single tier one, than in Westminster.
“As a leader you’ve got a shelf life, a best before date. I want to give young people a reason to come in rather than fill the top jobs with people in their 70s.
“As for Blackpool. I love it. The town gave me a chance. It helped me flourish.
“I came here in 1999 having just finished my first year at university.
“I arrived with a sport bag full of clothes, £150, booked into a little B&B on Withnell Road, went to the pub, walked to the job centre next day and emerged with three interviews.
“One was for an hotel, which was dirty when I got there. Another was at Rumours which looked good until told I would be working in my pants - my boxer shorts. And the third was as a supervisor at Coasters at the Pleasure Beach for the summer. No contest.”
Is he anti-tourism?
“My issue is with making the great big capital spends of old relevant to residents - who may not go to the Comedy Carpet or the Grand or The Tower.
“I campaign for schools involvement in attractions, and for attractions to involve the local community. People say we rode in on dog poo and litter picking and bin collections. You may mock but these come up at my surgeries, PACT and area forums all the time.
“I’m not anti-tourism. I’ve worked in tourism. It’s just a nebulous concept.
“You have to make it relate to people who pick up the council tax bill.”
There are, he says, more tough decisions to be made in the future, such as the future of the Prom.
“Fact is,” he adds. “We don’t take decisions lightly. We didn’t with Queens Park, the deal breaker for me was those who wanted to stay could.
“But we will radically change that part of town for the better and keep the best of the community spirit. I’m excited about that.
“Free breakfasts in primary schools has been important. I don’t want to do it for 100 years and yes, parents should feed their kids, but we know many don’t. Hopefully, 15 years from now young parents will know how important it is to give kids breakfast and teach their kids the same. And it’s having a huge impact on attendance.
“But it’s the smallest stuff, the feedbacks from the wards, which gives me the greatest buzz.
“And if I was hoofed off the council tomorrow one thing I’d remember, as a new very junior backbencher, would be calling in a decision to increase the fee at the crematorium paid by parents of still born babies.
“I said I don’t think we should increase the fee, in fact I don’t think we should charge at all.
“Because that’s just the worst thing that can happen to anyone and if I was in that situation and got a bill from the council I’d put putting bricks through windows.
“The other thing? Getting the bench used by street drinkers outside Ibbison Court moved. Of my different leadership styles I have one best characterised as direct physical aggression and after much to-ing and fro-ing we still hadn’t got rid of the bench in spite of everybody being in favour of it.
“So I said if it’s not gone by 5pm I’ll hire an angle grinder and goggles and get it down by myself. By 4.30pm it had gone.”
As for his critics?
“If you put yourself up for election there’s a queue of people waiting to criticise you and rightly so.
“That’s democracy. No problem with constructive stuff but some of my online critics need a job, or a life or a girlfriend.
“I don’t read the comments online at The Gazette because it gets me cross.
“My challenge to those people is if you feel that strongly about it, do as I did – get down to the council six weeks before the next election, put your names on the ballot paper and let’s test out your ideas and how support there is for them.
“Or exercise your democratic right to vote for the other guy not me.”