We talk to council boss on the issues that affect YOU

Tough talking: Blackpool Council chief executive Neil Jack
Tough talking: Blackpool Council chief executive Neil Jack
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Gazette Political Writer Shelagh Parkinson sat down with Blackpool Council chief executive Neil Jack to discuss some of the main issues currently affecting residents.

On roads

“Some work is unavoidable due to the age of the infrastructure, and so much of it is underground.

“Some of the work on the Promenade just wasn’t done to the standard required, and that has been made good by the contractors.

“I can understand that when it comes to projects such as the PFI (private finance initiative) for traffic signals, it is disruptive and residents don’t notice a lot of difference once the work is done.

“However those signals were coming to the end of their life and so we have had to take these measures.

“Project 30 and the lighting PFI are both coming to an end, so what we want to do now is get off the roads.

“We have not chosen a contractor for Yeadon Way yet, but the questions we are asking are around what technology exists, and what timescales can they work to, and what can they bring to the table to enable them to do this in the smallest possible time.”

Mr Jack said time constraints imposed by the Government, which has provided the funding for the Yeadon Way upgrade, meant the work had to be done ahead of the General Election next spring.

But the chief pledged consultation on all road schemes would be better in future, echoing the recent promises of Coun John Jones, cabinet member for highways and transport.

He said: “Consultation needs to be better and more open, so people know we haven’t already decided what we are going to do it before we do it.

“We can’t take everyone’s views on board because that wouldn’t be practical.

“The Anchorsholme sea defences, including the closure of Princes Way, has seen extensive consultation and that is a very good example of the right way to do it.

“That extra bit of consultation is important.”

In a bid to improve the running of a number of key services, a new ‘Places’ directorate has been formed encompassing housing, highways, economic development, tourism and culture.

Mr Jack said: “We used to have 35 heads of service, now we have 12 of equivalent grade, and funding cuts are part of the reason for that.

“I believe the new Places directorate will mean links are better between services.

“It will mean better links, particularly around highways and transport and how to make the economy grow, not just from a tourism perspective, but around how people get to school and work, and how we support new businesses.”

On the town centre

“One thing we want to do is revitalise the whole of the town centre.

“That’s about getting more office workers in the town centre, and we are bringing 800 staff into our new offices from outlying offices, including Progress House.

“Children’s services are being brought together from a number of different sites to South King Street, and we have workers in the town hall.

“That’s a lot of extra people to sell stuff to.

“Anyone can attract shoppers in to the town on a Saturday, but what you need is people spending their money during the week, and that’s what cities like Manchester have.”

Once all 900 staff have moved into the new Bickerstaffe House council offices, there will be more than 1,400 council workers based in the town centre.

The total also includes 300 at the town hall, 150 at offices on South King Street and about 100 who work for Coastal Housing at their headquarters in Abingdon Street.

The council will fill three floors of the five-storey new offices, with tenants including the Gateway Fitness gym on the ground floor and a deal due to be finalised to bring a tenant into the first floor office space, which can accommodate around another 250 workers.

Civic bosses hope the initial investment will draw in further businesses to the town centre, boosting trade for retailers and prompting growth.

Mr Jack said: “The Sainsbury’s and the council officers are the beginning, and we hope before Phase One is completed that we will be able to announce some of Phase Two.

“We already have something in the pipeline in terms of these development sites that would be intended to be delivered in the next two years.

“We are working on the business plan for the tramway extension, and there is space for more offices and we are looking at hotels as well.

“Once we get a branded town centre hotel, it proves to the market that it works and it makes it easier to get other brands on board.

“The Central Business District wouldn’t have happened without the council offices, because schemes of this scale need public money to lessen the uncertainty and reduce the risk for the private sector.

“This is what has happened in cities like Manchester and Liverpool.”

On Central Station site

Relocating Bonny Street police station and the law courts remains key to getting any investment of the Central Station site off the ground.

The land, once earmarked for a supercasino but still operating as a car park, 50 years after the station closed, is well overdue for redevelopment.

But a major sticking point is uncertainty surrounding the police station and the courts.

Now it is hoped progress is finally on the horizon.

Plans for an indoor snow centre are still on the table, but the council wants to widen the search for possible attractions for the land, which opens on to the Golden Mile.

Mr Jack said: “Getting the courts and police station to a new location has been hard work.

“We have been putting pressure on our MPs, the Lancashire Economic Partnership and the Ministry of Justice.

“The police are easier because that is a Lancashire decision, and they have recognised their building is in a poor condition.

“We are as close now as we have ever been towards the move, which will make the next step achievable.

“We will then go out to the market generally, although Greenbank (the developer behind the snow centre) is still on board.

“Development is likely to be in phases so some revenue can be generated before it is finished.”

On housing

While planning permission is in place for hundreds of houses on Marton Moss, none have so far been built.

The only house-building on a large scale going on in the town is at Rigby Road and Queens Park – both council-backed projects harnessing Government funding through the Homes and Communities Agency.

But new accommodation is a key target of the council, and that includes the private rented sector, which is fuelling transience and holding back the chances of creating stable communities.

Mr Jack said: “The really big thing we need to tackle is the rented housing market. We have a level of private rented accommodation far higher than anywhere else in the country apart from London.

“Our issue is rubbish accommodation, and some of the landlords are shocking.

“Housing benefit supports their business model, charging higher than the real market value and many people are easily taken advantage of.

“We have 3,500 HMOs (houses in multiple occupation) in the town and they inevitably draw in people with problems, and it becomes the kind of area where once someone gets into work and overcomes their problems, they move on.”

This results in high levels of transience, and an endless cycle of problem families who require massive council resources.

Bloomfield ward, for example, has a 40 per cent turnover of residents every year.

The council is working towards a number of initiatives aimed at stabilising these communities.

Selective licensing is already forcing bad landlords to improve their properties, while other measures could include the council taking control of local housing benefit.

Tackling domestic violence, helping prevent children going into care and reducing isolation of groups such as single mums is also key.

Mr Jack says the only way to stop spending so much money on tackling social ills, is to prevent them in the first place.

He said: “It is all spending money on failure – there is a need for a drug rehabilitation service, child protection etc.

“But that is because at some point in their lives, something has gone wrong, and we need to stop lives from going wrong.

“We need to create good strong, family units.”