Blackpool will never give up on the hope of major political conferences returning to the resort.
That is the defiant message despite the fact the one-time spiritual seaside home for the nation’s political big hitters has fallen from favour.
As Prime Minister David Cameron takes to the stage of the Tory Party Conference in Manchester today it marks six years since Blackpool last hosted a major political summer shindig.
The 2007 Blackpool conference saw Mr Cameron win the hearts of the Tory faithful as he became party leader.
However, his party, together with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, have not been back since – and some fear the ‘Big Three’ will never return.
One veteran Blackpool councillor today said the resort had, in effect, been left to “wither and die” after the major parties turned their back on the historic Winter Gardens in favour of more modern facilities in Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester.
A lack of a new, purpose-built conference venue and large-scale hotel accommodation near the Winter Gardens is blamed.
It is estimated Blackpool is losing between £15m to £20m a year by not hosting an annual conference.
But with the ongoing refurbishment of the Winter Gardens, and a potential new hotel on the old Syndicate nightclub site, local politicians believe they could lure the Big Three back.
Blackpool Council Leader Simon Blackburn said: “I continually push organisers and senior party figures on a return to Blackpool for our main annual conference, and will continue to do so.
Coun Blackburn said the Winter Gardens – which has seen £3m spent on renovations including the refurbishment of the Floral Hall – would continue to be the focus for Blackpool’s conferencing ambitions.
He added: “A purpose-built conference centre would have to be self-sustaining, financially speaking.
“Developing a wide range of facilities in and around the Winter Gardens, as well as making the most of the excellent businesses and facilities already in the area, is a more realistic option.” This year Glasgow, Brighton and Manchester were chosen to host the three big party conferences.
And Tory councillor Maxine Callow said: “They have left us to wither and die because Blackpool has fallen out of fashion, and the parties all prefer to go to big cities.
“The political parties owe it to this town to come here and see what we have to offer now, because Blackpool has changed.
“I’ve been to Brighton and their conference centre is like an aircraft hangar compared to the beautiful Empress Ballroom in the Winter Gardens.
“I do not believe security is a problem. We had conferences here at the height of the IRA bombings and there were no issues with security.”
Blackpool South MP Gordon Marsden denied Labour had snubbed its tradition seaside support base.
He said: “The Labour Party is bringing its regional party here in November and that will bring about 1,000 delegates which will be a boost to the town.
“The challenge for Blackpool relates to the unresolved quest for a new conference centre which is what the casino bid was based on. All the main parties go to new centres which can only be built alongside other income generators and this is what the casino would have brought.”
Coun Tony Williams, leader of the Conservative group on Blackpool Council, also claimed the Tories were not snubbing Blackpool but blamed logistical obstacles.
He said: “I have been in David Cameron’s office and he has a picture on his wall of him and (wife) Samantha walking down North Pier, so I know he loves Blackpool.
“We need a direct rail link to London, because changing trains at Preston is not a good experience for delegates. Also, the Winter Gardens has no on-site accommodation.”
Jon Bamborough, a member of the stewarding team for Lib Dem conferences, said: “I would love the conferences to come back to Blackpool but one of the biggest problems is the main conference centre at the Winter Gardens doesn’t have a hotel next to it that can be the conference hotel.
“From a security point of view, it means you cannot put up ring of steel round just one venue. I believe the solution would be for the council to buy the land between the Hilton and the Imperial and build a conference centre there.”
2013 – Manchester
2014 – Birmingham
2015 – Manchester
2016 – TBC
2013 – Brighton
2014 – Manchester
2015 – Brighton
2016 – Liverpool
2017 – TBC
2018 – Liverpool
2013 – Glasgow
2014 – Glasgow
2015 – TBC
HOW WE COMPARE
• Blackpool’s main conference venue is the Winter Gardens – boasting 12 different venues, including a theatre, ballroom and conference facilities. The Imperial Hotel, 1.2 miles away from the Winter Gardens, has traditionally been used as the conference hotel.
• The Lib Dems went to the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre in Glasgow and used the Crown Plaza Hotel as their conference hotel which is an 11-minute walk away.
• The Brighton Centre hosted Labour, with the Hilton Brighton Metropole, a two-minute walk away, chosen as the conference hotel.
• The Conservatives are this week at Manchester Central, with the Midland Hotel, two minutes walk away, chosen as the conference hotel.