Plans to move thousands of civil service workers into Blackpool town centre have been backed by an influential group of Lords.
The leases on several government buildings on the Fylde coast are nearing an end, leading to fears over large scale job losses.
But talks have been taking place that could see multiple departments, including the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Work and Pensions, share a civil service hub in the resort.
Now the plans, which have so far been kept under wraps, have won support from members of the House of Lords Future of Seaside Towns committee.
Discussing its recent report – which put forward a raft of proposals to boost Blackpool’s fortunes – members focussed heavily on Blackpool and ways the government can get behind the town.
Lord McNally, who was born in the resort, called for an “early decision” from the government over plans for “the consolidation of Civil Service jobs in a new Civil Service hub in Blackpool town centre”.
He added: “That consolidation should include retention by the Ministry of Defence of the Norcross-based Veterans UK unit, which has been serving the social and medical needs of veterans for three generations.”
Baroness Jo Valentine, who has been part of the Blackpool Pride of Place partnership, which was set up to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the town, said the plan would be good for business.
She told the meeting on Monday night: “The leases are finishing on several local government buildings.
“Their activities could be combined in a proposed civil service hub for thousands of jobs, which would provide year-round footfall for the local high street.”
It ties in with Blackpool Council’s long-term plan to make the town centre less reliant on the retail sector, including attracting thousands of office jobs.
Council leader Simon Blackburn has previous spoken about the town’s “over-reliance” on retail and said he is confident on-going investment will help attract “thousands more jobs into the town centre in the years to come and breathe new life into the heart of Blackpool”.
Following the Lords' debate, he said: “It is great to hear that Blackpool featured so highly in the Lords’ discussion on the future of seaside towns.
“We are very supportive of the prospective plans to create Civil Service hubs and will offer every assistance we can to secure one within Blackpool Town Centre.
“From the work we have done to date with Bickerstaffe House we have already brought 1,000 office workers into the town centre, and our ambition is to have about 5,000.”
Pride of Place last year set out its key demands from government as part of its “agenda for action” to revitalise the town by 2013, including the “long-term retention and consolidation of civil service jobs through supporting a hub in Blackpool town centre”.
However, few details have so far been revealed about such plans. The council has previously said it was exploring a range of options to bring further jobs the next phase of the Talbot Gateway project, but did not say which organisations were involved.
Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, has been putting pressure on the government to ensure civil service jobs stay on the Fylde coast.
He said: “I very much support the ambition to develop a new civil service hub in Blackpool and have put considerable effort into lobbying ministers to deliver such a scheme.
“It is important for Blackpool to develop a diverse, year-round, economy and to provide quality employment opportunities. A civil service hub could play an important role in this effort and in the regeneration of our town.
“I have met with Tobias Ellwood MP to make the case for the new hub to accommodate Veterans Agency staff, currently employed at Tomlinson House in Norcross. This would help protect valuable jobs and ensure this skilled work remains on the Fylde coast.”
Plans for a North West civil service hub sparked fear two years ago, amid concerns Fylde coast jobs could be transferred outside the area.
It is not clear if the proposed Blackpool hub would encompass parts of the civil service currently based outside the Fylde coast or if it would be a consolidation of those already based here.
The Government has so far remained tight-lipped on the plans.
After Lord McNally, speaking at Monday’s debate, asked for “an early decision from the Cabinet Office, the DWP and the Ministry of Defence about the consolidation of Civil Service jobs in a new Civil Service hub in Blackpool town centre”, The Gazette put the question to the relevant departments.
The DWP said it was a matter for the Cabinet Office. Neither the Cabinet Office nor the MoD responded.
Baroness Valentine said after the meeting: “I was very happy to hear Blackpool mentioned so many times in the debate, both as an example of some of the issues seaside towns face and a case study for the solutions.
"I echo the call of so many of my colleagues that Government listen to the report and give Blackpool the town deal that has been recommended.”
‘Fantastic work’ is praised
Lord Best told the meeting how impressed he was with the “fantastic” work in Blackpool to improve “truly awful redundant tourist accommodation”.
However, he warned: “Blackpool’s efforts are being hopelessly undermined by the way the housing benefit system is operating there.
“The system... has incentivised the worst kind of landlord to buy up and let out really appalling slums while simultaneously making it impossible for the council and its partners to upgrade the quality of the housing in central Blackpool. How has this situation come about?”
He said the system was “unsophisticated” and did not take into account the difference in property prices across the Fylde coast – so a landlord could make just as much money renting out a run-down flat in a deprived area of Blackpool as an apartment in a more affluent part of the Fylde coast.
He said “slum landlords” can run a house of multiple occupancy, letting out eight “minute one-bedroom flats” for £85 a week each and make double what they would get for converting it into four “decent” units.
He said the fact housing benefit will cover the cost of accommodation in Blackpool makes the resort a “magnet” for “vulnerable claimants”.
“Every year, around 5,000 households eligible for housing benefit move into Blackpool, many of them with personal problems—of physical and mental health, drug abuse or alcoholism.”
He argued for Blackpool Council to be given control of the local housing benefit system and “remove the current incentives for the very worst kinds of landlords who concentrate as many vulnerable people as possible into appalling conditions”.
Chronic situation of housing needs to be tackled in a town with greatest concentration of deprivation in England
The “big prize” for Blackpool would be a so-called town deal to unlock investment that would support economic development and tackle the resort’s “chronic housing situation”. That’s the view of Baroness Jo Valentine.
In her role with the Blackpool Pride of Place Partnership, which has laid out an ambitious vision for the next decade, she has got to grips with a range of issues holding the town back.
She was among those who contributed to the Future of Seaside Towns report, which made wide-ranging recommendations to help places like Blackpool.
Speaking at Monday’s debate in the House of Lords, she said: “The resort has 18m visitors a year, a new five-star hotel, the UK’s first double-launch rollercoaster, a fantastic tram service and a hotel where Elvis Presley never leaves the building—not to mention the Blackpool Tower and “Strictly Come Dancing”, too.
“However, Blackpool also has the greatest concentration of deprivation in England. There are more looked-after children than anywhere else; secondary school ratings are significantly below average; and the male suicide rate is the highest in the country.”
She said some landlords are making large profits from the £80m of housing benefit spent in the area with “no quality control beyond fire and safety hazards”.
She said legislation to fix problems with housing benefit would help, as well as a decision on relocating the magistrates’ court – which would unlock the final phase of the £300m Central Station development.]
A town deal was suggested in the report earlier this year, with Blackpool making no secret of its aim to become the second town in the UK to strike such an agreement with the government.
The first was Grimsby, which secured £67m in funding to create thousands of jobs and homes.
Several Lords renewed calls for a swift decision on a deal for Blackpool.
Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth, minister for housing, communities and local government, said: “The town deal for Blackpool is being looked at. I cannot make any promises about that but I can say that Blackpool is a challenge that the Government take very seriously.
“It is close to all our hearts; we all know Blackpool, which is uniquely British and certainly worth saving.”
Lord Griffiths said: “Blackpool certainly stood up and asked to be counted. I do not want to repeat points, but perhaps the Minister would answer the question about the Civil Service jobs in the centre of Blackpool and the Ministry of Justice possibly relocating the courts. If those buildings and operations stand in the way of a potential coherent response to the needs of Blackpool, we should have a response to those questions.”
Lord Bourne did not comment on the civil service plans but said he would “check” on the situation with the court.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said there had been no progress towards relocating Blackpool Magistrates’ Court, adding: “We have not yet received a formal proposal to relocate the court but will consider one if it is made by the council.”