Credit where it’s due...

New chief executive of Blackpool Council, Neil Jack
New chief executive of Blackpool Council, Neil Jack
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At 39, Neil Jack is the youngest chief executive to work for Blackpool Council.

He faces the toughest economic challenge since the 1930s, with the economy in meltdown and a council tax freeze curbing the authority’s ability to charge more to deliver services required.

In saying that, he is the first to admit “the man in the street paying the council bills will see it as good news”.

Mr Jack warns more council jobs are to go next year.

“It’s inevitable, we’re already talking to unions, no specifics, but budget cuts won’t be as significant as those in the current year. We will do all we can to make efficiencies elsewhere.

“The council’s Government settlement was for two years, so we knew and said this would happen as part of phase two.

“We hoped things would change but the council tax freeze limits our control.”

Mr Jack now plans a review of how the council works with other agencies as part of his plan to put the authority’s finances on a “more even footing” over the next three to five years.

He said: “We can’t keep reacting each time there is a funding change. Government policy has already had a detrimental impact on poorer northern areas and we have been badly hit.”

Mr Jack is also keen to “engage” with residents. “I don’t believe because a council is full of people with professional qualifications and degrees we know best. Let’s talk.”

As finance and resources director since 2006 at Blackpool Coastal Housing, which was set up to run what had been the council’s housing stock, he has played a key role in the proposed demolition of tower blocks at Queens Park, Layton (pictured below).

“What’s happening now would have been unthinkable a year ago until we made sure we spoke to everybody and were open and honest. A core of residents have been there a long time, but a lot of people just churned through.

“The turnover was high. They made no real effort to settle, wrecked the place while there, upset the neighbours and it went downhill, subsidised by more stable stock elsewhere. The estate was a drain on our resources.

“When we finally won cash for more housing, it was the time to act and not throw it away.”

Mr Jack’s candour is a breath of fresh air.

He admits he did not see the supercasino as the panacea to Blackpool’s problems.

“It might have added to them,” he said.

He would not have mounted a costly challenge to Preston’s Tithebarn retail development either.

“Why should one authority leave another bereft of retail?

“Let’s focus on improving the offer here.”

He would not have let the Gateway town centre redevelopment languish so long, the name became a byword for never-never land.

The project formerly known as Gateway is now the Central Business District, and pressing on with new supermarket plans and council offices as the catalyst for change.

“Get the name right,” he stresses.

He won’t be drawn on Carnesky’s Ghost Train, or Drain, as locals call it, but one suspects he may take a closer look at that, too.

This accountant has a sense of humour and is also a Blackpool FC fan.

He lives with his girlfriend in – oops – Preston.

“I know, but it would be unfair to uproot the kids from school.”

Born in Blackpool, his father a prison officer, mother a civil servant at Warbreck Hill, their work gave him insight into social issues – and sympathy for civil servants facing more cuts.

“The loss of 1,000 jobs there could be cataclysmic,” he adds. “It would impact more directly than BAE Systems.”

He’s got an eye for the main chance presented by the alleged fracking for shale gas jobs bonanza. “It’s not our land but we are uniquely placed to exploit the opportunities presented – via our local college and other means – and plan to do so.”

Mr Jack was educated at Millfield Primary, Thornton, and Baines High, Poulton, “over rated but it got good results”.

His finance degree took him to Lancashire County Council as a credit trainee.

“Saving big corporations and rich people tax liability didn’t appeal. I wanted to make a difference.

“In ‘94 the economy was just coming out of crisis.

“You’d get a budget, see a page of new things you could spend money on and 20 pages of cuts. It’s come full circle.

“My job’s still about how to best spend money and help people.”

Mr Jack had to make redundancies at Blackpool Coastal Housing last year.

“People think human resources is all pink and fluffy or bad news. When you’re involved in the process of making people redundant you learn not to blunder in. It’s traumatic. You must mitigate the impact. People were kept informed, involved, had their say, and it wasn’t brutal.”

Mr Jack says his priority as chief executive of Blackpool Council is to protect the vulnerable and deliver services the public require, as well as look after staff and engage with residents.

He supports the new Labour-led administration’s focus on the nuts and bolts of council services – clean streets, bins emptied, potholes filled in and the like.

“The focus is on the things people think about in terms of services, but we’re also looking at the nature of work in town to remind us to focus on the private sector, as well as the tourism sector.

“Low pay is a real issue here. It keeps people on benefits, on top-ups, and there’s not a lot of incentive for people to drag themselves out of bed if they’re going to flip burgers on the prom for £5.93 an hour.

“It’s vital to secure aspirational work. It’s hard to get away from tourism being central to the economy with the way public sector cuts are going, but we want more all year round jobs, better paid careers, bosses valuing workers and treated them well.

“The tourism drive towards stag and hens has driven everything downmarket.

“We have ended up gaining social problems from getting a few extra jobs – and those jobs are not worth much, poor paying, and we’re wrecking the town at the same time.

“What we need is a focus on tourism for the benefit of the people who live here, not for its own sake.

“We don’t win badges for having 25 million people coming to town. They’re only worth having if they make Blackpool a better place to live for the people who live here.

“ We don’t want them for themselves, so let’s move towards better quality tourism.”

Mr Jack also reminds residents that it’s we, not big business leisure magnates, who own the Tower and Winter Gardens.

“Merlin has taken a lot of credit for what has gone on in The Tower but it’s not their money, it’s taxpayers’ money and it will be paid back via profit sharing.

“It made sense for the town to buy The Tower. It was starting to fall to bits in places, but it’s iconic, and makes money, and needed to be refreshed, which couldn’t happen without a big chunk of Government or European money.”

Mr Jack says the Winter Gardens will also pay off “if the right mix of attractions” is offered there.

“The complex has needed investment for a long time and not had any, but as a grade two star listed building it would have come back to the council one way or other, and in a worse state if investment had not happened.

“Both decisions look odd in isolation but the logic is unarguable.”

Far from a snob, he can see no difference between grant funding for London museums and greater help for Blackpool’s heritage.

“The only difference is location. The Science Museum is every bit as much a tourist attraction as The Tower.

“The Winter Gardens is as important as any of the Tates or V&A. It makes perfect sense.

“The previous administration and my predecessor Steve Weaver went through pain and heartache, closing the Prom, tramway, redoing St John’s, The Tower, and Winter Gardens, and all you could see were building works and no benefit. We’re seeing the benefits now. Let’s give credit where it’s due.”