Jack on the spot

Chief executive of Blackpool Council, Neil Jack.

Chief executive of Blackpool Council, Neil Jack.

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When Neil Jack got the top job as Blackpool Council chief executive in September 2011 cynics said he was council leader Simon Blackburn’s ‘yes man’.

“I wish...” says Coun Blackburn fervently. “He’s the one who gets me back into line.”

Neil agrees – if only this once. “Some like a yes man in theory but not reality. Simon’s very impatient, he wants things done yesterday and would have a tendency to rush to judgement without someone giving a bit of a pull on the reins.

“I’m there to say let’s think it through, consider all the options, get the best one.”

So what are the right decisions for Blackpool right now – taking Britain’s toughest beating from the impact of welfare benefit cuts?

“There was a real drag on the economy locally last year because of the weather. Bigger numbers come and put the redevelopment of the Prom at the top of their reasons.

“It’s a vote for what’s been done but suggests they didn’t spend much. They came and had a bag of chips rather than went to attractions that cost substantially more.

“We’re pushing operators to do more, particularly for residents, not just one off promotions, gimmicks, but regularly.

“We’ve got locals going to The Tower now, telling friends it’s great, but other attractions need to make themselves more affordable.

“Take The Grand. There’s not a huge amount of repeat business other than core clientele or friends. We need more flexible loyalty schemes for locals, different ways to access cheaper deals.

“If you are not someone who goes to the ballet would you try it out for the usual price? We need to draw people in so they realise what they are missing and come back for more.”

At 40, Neil is one of the country’s youngest chief executives.

He worked in finance at the council, then Blackpool Coastal Housing when housing broke free of the council.

He added: “The aim was to make the town a better place, help the most vulnerable, quickly, without bureaucracy, cost effectively.”

He had just qualified as an accountant when Blackpool went unitary.

“It’s beneficial so long as you don’t go too big and lose your connection with people.

“That’s why public health is now in the right place – as part of the local authority.

“We need to look at the 
determinants of health – and long term welfare.

“The biggest determinants of poor health are poor housing, drug use, alcohol.

“If you look at poor health pockets in town, around South Shore, Claremont, they are devoid of social housing.

“At Grange Park, where there is social housing, there aren’t the same health issues.

“Problems are worse in inner areas, and that’s down to transience and housing, and transience is down to housing because we’re plagued with ex-guesthouse bedsits, horrible accommodation, where nobody wants to stay for long.

“One part of South Shore sees 40 per cent transience, 40 per cent leave every year, which means you don’t have a community, lack of stability is linked to drug and drink misuse, poor mental health, low level spiral of decline stuff, depression, made worse by their surroundings.

“Your health is worse because the housing is worse – that’s why public health fits very well within a council.

“I go out with housing enforcement and look at derelict hotels and bedsits.

“People don’t know their rights.

“In one flat, decent enough, the heaters were illegal not because they were dangerous but because they could never heat the room.

“There’s such a lot that needs doing here and it’s about more than sorting accounts out.

You can’t lose sight of people. Council officials do at times, they follow rules, processes but forget common-sense, the fact we have discretionary powers to make lives better.

“It’s why we have a three year outline budget and have made sure next year’s is nailed down so we can say in each service this is going to happen.

“Even if it means five less jobs in a team of 20 in 12 months time people know what’s going to happen, they can take control.

“We’ve had to save tens of millions of pounds. It is increasingly hard.

“In the first year or two there were efficiency savings.

“Now we’re getting to the bone.

“Difficult decisions are more readily made when you can’t afford to keep putting things off.

“With public money I am incredibly mean – all this money doesn’t belong to us but tax-payers, local and national, so every penny needs to be spent wisely.

“Of the £14m which has come out for this current financial year £2m to £3m of
 efficiency is in that, the rest are cuts, so we have to make cuts with the least detrimental impact, so we don’t damage the local economy.

“It means more active money management. It means we encourage resilience rather than reliance.

“Sometimes we’ve done too much. Most want us to keep streets clean, empty bins, have nice roads to drive on.

“We should stop doing things to people and ask those who make the least noise what is essential, what could you live without, what could you manage in a different way?”

Glory days of grant-funded grandiose schemes have gone, he says ... his office overlooking one such scheme, Brilliance in Birley Street. “No, I don’t get it, street’s too narrow, why there?”

He adds: “It would be nice to have some of that money back, the £500m spent.

“Yes, you’d think new tramway, nice. New Promenade, absolutely great, Tower and Winter Gardens... needs addressing as under investment was crippling .. but the money could have been spent in a more focused way.

“Yes, St Johns is better than it was.

“However, having a bus stop in the middle of an area with no traffic is slightly ridiculous.

“I like it as an open square but it’s not active, we need to draw people through, hopefully having the Winter Gardens more involved with shows will help.

“We need movement 
in the economy.
“ Times are hard but not as hard as they have been.

“It’s happening in slower motion than the Depression of the 30s when we ran into a brick wall in one go.

“We’re seeing pay restraint, shorter hours, and people have the hope things will improve if we hang on long enough – although I think we’d be better off going into church to pray for that than ask the Government.

“We need to stimulate demand in the economy.”

Striking the balance between both residents and tourists enjoying a family-friendly town and accommodating revellers looking for a good night out is never going to be easy.

Mr Jack added: “We have a funny old town here, one which grows three times in the season, and has a centre built for more people than it has four or five months a 
year.

“Ten years ago locals took the town centre back when the season ended.

“They don’t now.

“It’s not just about stag and hens, we’ve always had them in some form or other.

“One problem we do have is not having things separate enough if you come with your family on a Saturday afternoon to the town centre shops or to queue for the other attractions.

“We need to draw people in and change some of the clashes.

“We want to change the nature of the town centre.

“We want the whole town more family orientated.”