How this long-standing councillor helped shape Labour's rise to power in Blackpool

Nobody could accuse David Owen of not being persistent.

Thursday, 22nd August 2019, 10:29 am
Coun David Owen celebrating 40 years on the council

He unsuccessfully stood for election nine times before finally winning a seat on Blackpool Council - but his tenacity paid off and this summer he marked 40 years as a councillor.

The same determination saw him help save the town's historic Grand Theatre, and he remains a guardian of many of the resort's treasures through roles including as chairman of the Winter Gardens Trust.

He also played a part in changing the face of Blackpool politics when as secretary of the town's Labour party he gave evidence to the Local Boundary Commission supporting an increase in the number of wards from 17 to 22 (subsequently reduced to 21).

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Coun David Owen celebrating 40 years on the council

Coun Owen believes changes introduced as part of local government reorganisation in the mid-'70s paved the way for Labour to eventually break the Tory stranglehold that had lasted 125 years.

Coun Owen said: "Prior to 1983, Labour only had a handful of elected councillors.

"During the 1960s and '70s there were years when we had just two or three councillors, and sometimes it was none.

"I stood nine times and was beaten nine times before finally winning a seat at a by-election in Layton in 1975."

Coun David Owen as a young candidate

It was after local government reorganisation that Labour's fortunes started to change.

Coun Owen said: "We argued that if we had smaller wards, we would have pockets of Labourites and our big breakthrough was in 1979 when nine Labour councillors were elected.

"In 1991 we had 27 councillors and Labour took control of the council for the first time in Blackpool's history."

Coun Owen is Blackpool born and bred, attending Layton Primary School and Baines Grammar School before studying law at Manchester University.

Coun David Owen at his town hall wedding to Jean Preston

He was taking his finals when he first stood for election in 1963, and he has also unsuccessfully fought three Parliamentary elections.

He recalls: "I was a bit of a firebrand in those days and remember at one event being asked to speak before Harold Wilson.

"There was a lot of heckling and it was a great atmosphere. Now it's very pasteurised and lots of sound bites."

His 40 years includes a four year break when he was de-selected, meaning he reached the landmark in July this year.

Despite his longevity, he is not Blackpool's longest serving councillor - with that honour going to fellow Labour representative Ivan Taylor who reached 50 years in March this year.

Coun Owen's own milestone includes eight years as the member for Layton and 32 years in Victoria ward.

In 1995/96 he was Mayor, accompanied by his late wife Jean as Mayoress (the couple were the first to marry at Blackpool Town Hall), and he has also served as cabinet member for leisure, libraries and parks and is currently on his second stint as planning chairman.

Away from politics, Coun Owen's other great love has been the arts, and in 1972 when the Grand Theatre came under threat he was among a small band of influential people including Geoffrey Thompson from the Pleasure Beach, to set up a Friends Group.

He said: "At a five-day public inquiry we saved the Grand against all odds.

"The council had connived with the owners EMI for it to come down and to build a Littlewoods store.

"EMI claimed it would cost a fortune to retain the Grand and another storm would blow the roof off.

"But it was all lies and the evidence we had proved they were wrong."

Coun Owen says a public petition of 10,000 signatures and intervention by businessman Owen Oyston to reduce the asking price of the theatre, also played a big part in saving it.

He added: "We formed an appeal committee. The council gave us £50,000 plus a £50,000 interest free loan. Other organisations chipped in and we were there."

A desire to preserve Blackpool's heritage and be an advocate for quality future development has been a constant thread during Coun Owen's public service, whether as a founder of the town's Civic Trust or as chairman of the council's planning committee.

Away from the town hall, his interests include rambling and football - he is a season ticket holder at both Blackpool and Fleetwood.

He said: "I'm also proud of our record on libraries and that we have been able to keep eight libraries going in the town which is more than many local authorities.

"But Blackpool is still a town with a low wage economy and it always has been.

"All the money made by Blackpool during the war and post-war years was not invested back into the town.

"We have a huge over-capacity of lesser quality accommodation, but we have to give people what they want and people want to be comfortable."

However he feels there is plenty of reason for optimism thanks to the current wave of regeneration projects ranging from the tramway extension to new hotels.

And four decades on from when he was first elected, he says the town hall has a bigger influence then ever on the future of the resort.

He said: "In my early years on the council, it was dead easy when the private sector made its money.

"But the private sector can't exist without the council being a major player now and so we are the catalyst for change, and that's the difference I'm especially seeing in my 40 years as a Blackpool councillor."