Depending on your point of view, you might say Simon Blackburn has either the best or worst job in Blackpool.
Leader of the council, he is the man who – in theory – is responsible for making the town a place its people and its visitors can be proud of.
He took over in 2011 (when Labour won the local election) and has been in charge for four and a half eventful years.
Love him or loathe him – and it’s fair to say there are plenty in both camps – he has certainly had his work cut out.
He inherited a Blackpool that was, and still is, bottom of just about every bad league table around, from teenage pregnancies to low life expectancy, from drug and alcohol abuse to child neglect and poverty.
His job is to try and change that, as well keeping on top of everything else a council leader is responsible for.
It’s in black and white so there is no point pretending
To be frank, it sound a nightmare, an unenviable task.
“It is tough,” he says, when I put that to him. “But I enjoy it hugely.”
As 2015 draws to a close, The Gazette sent STEVE CANAVAN to talk to the man about what he thinks he has done for the town - and what he is planning for the future.
Sum up 2015 for us?
Simon Blackburn: As ever, it’s been a mixed picture but there have been some significant achievements.
How important is the Enterprise Zone at the airport to you?
Hugely and it will prove to be very significant to the borough over the next 10 years. It will not only produce somewhere in the region of 3,000 jobs but will put Blackpool on the business map in a way it hasn’t been before.
We’ve always kind of been apologetic about being stuck at the end of the motorway but that site is just a few minutes from the end of the M55 and with offshore gas and oil likely to happen in the next 25 to 30 years, I think the Enterprise Zone will be a really central development.
We’ve had huge shows in Blackpool this year, what have tourism numbers been like?
According to the tourism operators, it has been the best year for more than a decade. The Winter Gardens has recorded record visitor numbers.
The reason? The ‘Blackpool’s back’ advertising campaign played a huge part. Merlin took the lead on that and it was hugely successful.
Merlin are very good at collecting data from people about why they come to Blackpool.
It’s not something we’ve been able to do before other than the odd telephone survey but what they found demonstrated two things – having a cluster of attractions so close together appealed to a lot of visitors, and that they came because of the advert.
Mamma Mia at the Opera House had a big impact. More than half the people who came to see it stayed overnight, so that had a big knock-on effect for the hotel and restaurant trade.
We’ve got Christmas Carol on at the moment, we’ve had Cats... it’s been a very long time since we’ve had shows of that calibre in Blackpool.
I can’t say too much about it but what’s pencilled in at the Winter Gardens for the next two years is spectacular.
Given Blackpool is the second worst education authority in the country when it comes to league tables, is it a priority to try and improve it in 2016?
Yes. I’m very disappointed at our continued educational performance. We will not have high schools under local authority control, they will all be academies.
We need to develop a new relationship with these schools because academies aren’t obliged to let us across the threshold. They can buy their services from whoever they want.
It is very important for me and the council that our secondary schools improve quite dramatically . It is tough enough for kids trying to get a job in a town which is very seasonal, but it’s a lot tougher if they are unable to read or write properly.
We are the second worst authority in the league tables. It’s in black and white so there is no point pretending any differently that it’s better than that.
Primary schools are quite good. When they leave primary education they are more or less the national average. But by the time they are 16 they are significantly lower.
We need to get an awful lot better than that and we need to make a fairly quick impact when a particular school is struggling at a particular subject.
Why do your job, it must be a nightmare?
It is hard but I enjoy it hugely.
The breadth of challenge you get leading Blackpool Council ... I don’t think you have that anywhere else in the country.
The fact that we are at the bottom of every bad league table gives it an added edge I think. It’s enormously challenging, it requires good skills and a level of patience that – if I’m being honest – I haven’t got.
I’ve had to learn to be patient because I’m the kind of person who wants everything to happen today. So I’ve had to accept that some things take 18 months and you just have to learn to deal with that.
But it must get you down when you see bad press nationally or someone criticising the resort?
No. It actually makes you quite a positive soul because whenever someone puts one of these league tables in front of you, I just say, yes, I know it’s terrible. We live and breathe this every day but what people outside of the town don’t realise is how much work and investment has gone into the place.
However, it isn’t something you can turn round overnight.
What do you mean?
Take the high levels of child poverty. The council can’t directly influence it. What we need to do is grow the local economy – and this is my main focus for next year – because it is one of the main ways to lift children out of poverty.
The best way to keep a child happy and healthy is get them into work, so we need to create as many new jobs as possible.
That’s where forming a combined authority for Lancashire is important. We can work together and people from our town could access jobs that come out of it.
If you look at the things that blight Blackpool – rogue landlords, poor standard of accommodation – we’ve done a lot over the last five years, like Selective Licensing, but if we could, as part of devolution, get control over housing budgets then we could really start to turn the screw on bad landlords and alter the housing situation. At the moment people can drift in and bring their own problems, which ultimately drags the place down.
But these people need somewhere to go don’t they?
But whatever you are running from will follow. These peoples’ issues are much better dealt with if they stay in the place where they live, where they, a family, or friend, or even a doctor they know can help.
Look , if you want to move to Tunbridge Wells or Bath or Chelsea, you would need a job, a month’s deposit, good references ... here you can just pitch up with a bin bag full of clothes and 50 quid and you’ll have a bedsit within hours no problem.
We can cope with problems of Blackpool people. The issue is if you’ve got drink or drugs problems then don’t come here because there are already lots of people here with those problems so it’s the worst place to come.
What is the latest with the proposed £12m Holiday Inn hotel to replace the Talbot Road car park?
We agreed 12 months ago to consider putting £12m into that site. During the election campaign that was turned into us spending £12m on a hotel, but that’s not true.
We were considering it because we wanted a statement building on that site, something which would make people go ‘wow, this is a town that means business’.
Unfortunately it soon became clear during talks with the developer that the cost would have been closer to £20m and if I’m going to commit to a multi-million pound venture – especially in these times – then I have to be sure that we get our money back and make a slight profit. For £12m we would have done, but at £20m we would have been very hard-pressed to do that.
So what is the plan now?
Well, the Syndicate has finally coming down – the longest demolition project known to man. I’m delighted about that. In the short-term it will be a car park because that will raise a few quid, but you’ve got to think that would actually be quite a good site for a hotel, adjacent to the Winter Gardens and handy for Bickerstaffe House and the train station. So we might be able to do a deal there which would be much more attractive financially because of the nature of that site.
And the Talbot Road car park?
As it stands, it will stay a car park. We still need car parks and it raises quite a lot of money by being one.
How important is making money from these ventures?
The government has made it clear that by 2020, councils will only be able to spend what they raise – there will be no central pot of money from government any more.
So if we can make an investment now – while we can still borrow money very cheaply – which will bring us income for the next 50 years, then we will do that. Every penny raised will be important in future years.
The council owns a lot of land and buildings and over the next few months we will make announcements on how we will start managing those in a better way. We need to maximise funding streams because we need them for 2020.
You won’t be doing this job forever, what would you like your legacy to be?
More than anything I hope the people I’ve worked with over the last five years will say I am brutally honest.
I’ve tried and succeeded I believe in changing the culture of the council, before it tried to pretend everything was fine, but it is not fine.
We are bottom of every league table going so it’s far from fine.
So let’s admit there is an issue and get on with it.
When we tried to implement EMRO (Early Morning Restriction Order which would have seen all clubs and bars close at 3am) people told me I couldn’t pursue it because it would make us look like a town with problems.
Well, they know we’ve got problems.
Nobody thinks Blackpool is a sea of tranquillity at four in the morning.
People want to see the council doing something about it. Same with rogue landlords, a problem for 30 years that we never tackled. We’ve tackled it.
And what is one project you’d really like to see in Blackpool before you’re done?
A museum. I don’t often have original ideas but that was one of mine. I got everyone into my office two years ago and said ‘why haven’t we got one?’
I wasn’t born in town. I didn’t move here till my 20s but it is a fantastic place and I love it and I think Blackpool deserves to celebrate its history. It is an internationally-significant place and we don’t make enough of that.
The museum is earmarked for the Winter Gardens. When will we see it open?
We’ve just had a meeting about it and clearly it is going to take time.
Whether it’s in the Winter Gardens or somewhere else, I do hope at some point Blackpool does get its own museum. If that opens, I can retire a happy old man.