AREA forums are back – and this time they should be here to stay. Ask Curtis Holmes. He’s 14, lives in Marton, sports a Blackpool FC shirt (in the hope of catching Blackpool Council leader Simon Blackburn’s eye), and wants a bigger say in local matters.
“It’s not all about vandalism and anti-social behaviour at my age,” he adds. “I don’t do any of that, and my mates don’t either. But it’s about consulting us, too, and making sure our views matter.”
Blackpool Young People’s Council fight that corner already, but for kids who don’t necessarily want to be part of a formal group, the new-look area forums, revived by the equally new-look Blackpool Council, aim to tap into the greatest barometer of Blackpool: its residents.
Curtis is at Claremont Area Forum with his grandad, Jack Ambrose, who lives locally and has asked him along. “I like to go to the PACT (Police and Communities Together) meetings, too,” says Curtis.
In some areas, forums have been scrapped. Blackpool has seven, each covering three council wards, now chaired by a member of the local community, not a local councillor.
Curtis has already contributed to the debate on how to get word out, and encourage others to attend forums, and find councillors, and officers, and others (police, NHS Blackpool, more) waiting to hear their views and, hopefully, respond to their complaints.
But he warns: “It’s important people know they are being listened to.”
Meetings are on a three-month cycle. Too long, say most present, make it two months, so that feedback comes faster. They want leaflets to arrive on time, Your Blackpool, the council magazine, to promote forums more, and, in Curtis’s case, “social networking – to attract younger people, too”.
“We need to get the word out that the forums are back,” agrees Harry Holland, MBE (for community work), chairman of the centre. “I’m delighted. I was chairman of the first, for Claremont and Talbot, for four years. We got things done. We also had our own grant.”
With membership ailing, or the political will to support them flagging, they fell on harder times, some scrapped, others seen as talkingshops.
The new-look Labour council is testing the community’s resolve to revive area forums.
The commitment is seen in the attendance at the meeting, displays by local police, sports centre, neighbourhood services and community facilities – and the turnout by officers and councillors, not just from the district wards, but further afield.
“I’m committed to this,” says Coun Blackburn. “If the will’s there, I see no reason why they shouldn’t become far more popular and effective. We don’t want to sweep people’s opinions and concerns under the carpet – but act upon them.”
Curtis suggests greater use of social networking. “If they want to get younger people here, that’s the best way of doing it,” he tells area forum chairman, former Labour councillor Phil Dunne. “You could set up a Facebook page, Friends of the Forums.”
Coun Blackburn came unstuck online pre-election, with an unguarded remark regarding Blackpool FC being 2-0 up in the first-half against his beloved Blackburn, who later equalised. “You can forgive me for not being quite as enthusiastic about social networking,” he smiles. But for a man accused of having committed “political suicide” via Facebook, Coun Blackburn has bounced back. He’s already reversed some controversial decisions made by the old Tory guard, the closure of Grange Park and Mereside libraries, Hoyle House rehabilitation centre, for starters, ordered some costly heads to roll, saving cash for other priorities, and has gone on the road to promote born-again area forums as a valuable touchstone to the grassroots issues he considers matter most to residents.
For all the dark mutterings from the tourism sector, he’s struck a chord, if the well attended and vocal Claremont forum is anything to go by. Many point to the development of the wedding chapel on the promenade, and ask why that went ahead, when “every area forum opposed it”, and highlight the more surreal highways developments locally. There’s a suggestion the St John’s Square scheme could be up for review – Coun Blackburn conceding it was an 18-month trial which could be reconsidered. “Ideally in October, after we’ve seen how the seafront and other road schemes are bedding in.” His instinct is to stick with pedestrianisation, but drive more events into the Square to animate the centre, and “encourage the residents back, day and night.”
As for the future of the forums? Take the advice of Doreen Peters.
“Make your voice heard,” says Doreen, who’s part of a smaller residents’ association concerned about crime, security, cleansing, anti-social behaviour and other issues.
“We want alleygates, and the only way we can get them is by speaking out. If they don’t listen, we’ll keep coming back until they do.”
Next week area forums will be held for: Parklands, St Mary’s Catholic College, St Walburgas, FY3 7EQ, Monday, 6.30pm; Revoe, Revoe Primary School, Grasmere Road, FY1 5HP, Tuesday, 6.30pm; Cherry Tree Marton Methodist Church, Midgeland Road, FY4 5HL, Wednesday 6.30pm, and Thames, Highfield Humanities College, Highfield Road, FY4 3JZ, Thursday 6.30pm.