A matter of civic pride

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Griff Rhys Jones is busy, busy, busy. That’s how he likes it. When he gets time to think of it. Which isn’t now. Right now he’s preparing to put a bit of civic pride back into Preston – via a workshop there this afternoon – and then heading off to a big black tie do in Blackpool tonight, at arguably the most surreal setting the Winter Gardens has to offer – the Spanish Hall.

Having presented the annual Blackpool Civic Trust awards for excellence tonight, he gets to see the Comedy Carpet tomorrow. There’s a sizeable chunk with Alas, Smith and Jones’ contribution upon it. A hark back to Griff’s early days in cutting-edge comedy.

Comedians are far more visible than they ever used to be. Turn on the box and there are two of Griff’s former ‘ship’ mates (from Three Men in a Boat days) – Dara O’Briain recently did the BBC Stargazing Live honours, and Rory McGrath still roams TV repeat land in The Lakes, running into Ade Edmondson’s The Dales... and Caroline Quentin’s Cornwall.

Welshman Griff has sights set on the bigger picture, as president of Civic Voice. The national civic movement charity was born of a national conference in Blackpool several months after the original Civic Society folded in 2008, hit hard by recession.

It’s another reason why he’s fond of Blackpool. “You’ve got a particularly active and influential Civic Trust here. It’s positive and pro-active. Sometimes people feel civic associations are all about NIMBYism. Blackpool’s is all about helping people understand they have to care for their town.”

As a Restoration comedian, Griff has done more than his bit for conservation, fund-raising for Hackney Empire and the River Stour project, carrying placards in protest at cuts to architecture degree courses in Cambridge, and presenting several series of the BBC’s Restoration programme.

He likes what he sees in Blackpool, having not visited for 10 years, when it was in “marked decline – along with every other seaside resort in Britain”.

We may never, he says, get the old days back, or the crowds, but we can keep the town thriving and vibrant by building on the heritage we have, and providing other reasons to come. And that includes protecting places people love because they are “beautiful”.

The attachment may be emotional or just intrinsic or instinctive. “People often have an irrational pride in a place, which makes them defensive about it. It is sometimes hard to pin down, but why should we? You can visit a place for the first time and feel the same.”

He’s on a rant. It’s against planning reforms which pave the way for “presumption in favour of sustainable development”. Sustainability has become a weasel word, says Griff.

“It assumes all development is for the good of the country. Or the economy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“Just look at the despoliation of the landscape from shale gas fracking. The march of so-called sustainability threatens much of what we hold dear. It threatens everyday England.” He’s already hit out against the legislation’s bias in favour of putting more shops into town centres. “Retail won’t save the day for struggling towns and cities. Homes will – get people to live back in their town or city centres.”

Under Griff’s lead Civic Voice has a bounce, vigour and exuberance that was lacking in the old days – and a president prepared to bang the drum in Blackpool tonight, Manchester tomorrow between filming commitments.

Why? “Because I believe in what the likes of Elaine Smith (local trust chairman) are trying to achieve here. They are doing a great job. These people campaign with all their worth.” He’s here to praise Blackpool, not bury it under the weight of its heritage. He says the town is reinvesting, reinventing and refurbishing. “It’s not about turning the clock back – it’s about building a better place to live, work and visit, and appreciate all the fun to be had here, the social scene. It’s brilliant, and rather marvellous, that Blackpool is committed to all that.”

Griff says the awards mirror that commitment. Winners will be announced at the newly-refurbished Floral Hall and the Spanish Hall at the Winter Gardens.

They don’t just recognise or reward the usual upper echelons of the community, the likes of Merlin or the Pleasure Beach, Central Library, Comedy Carpet, tram depot, health or leisure centres, entrepreneurs, architects or Blackpool Council – but ordinary everyday people, and projects making a big difference.

So look to the likes of community gardens on council estates for inspiration, or near derelict wasteland transformed into nature rambles, schoolkids recycling or running eco-projects, small businesses keeping shop fronts in order, senior citizens digging in for victory against the blight.