An influential group of business leaders and ambassadors for Blackpool are leading the push to help the resort blossom.
Using their wide-ranging expertise, they are shouting about what makes our proud town so great to anyone who will listen – and, crucially, those in positions of power.
But they have are also realistic about the challenges faced and have called on the Government to help. The Blackpool Pride of Place partnership is tackling some of the biggest issues –such as housing and jobs – head on.
They played a key role in the recent royal visit when none other than the future king heard first hand about the resort’s struggles, what is being done to help, and the support needed to really make a difference to people’s lives.
Over the coming weeks and months we will be featuring some of the people leading the charge in the fight for a better future for Blackpool.
The first of those is Baroness Jo Valentine – who has been heavily involved in projects such as CrossRail, the Millennium Bridge in London and Teach First.
Here she talks about how Blackpool won her over and why her time in the capital can be a real boost for the resort.
Coming in as an outsider, Baroness Jo Valentine had to be convinced to leave London to head north to the Fylde coast.
But what she found has made her optimistic for the future – even if there a real challenges to overcome first.
Her CV speaks for itself and it is no surprise she was head-hunted to come in and help get the Blackpool message out to those with the power to help.
She was chief executive of London First for 13 years, bringing together business leaders to for the good of the capital.
During her time there she championed the Crossrail project, the Millennium Bridge and was on the board of the Teach First project to drive up educations standards in the most deprived areas.
And while she admits she had no links to Blackpool before the Pride of Place project, she has worked in Lancashire before. Baroness Valentine ran the ‘Blackburn Project’ 30 years ago to regenerate the town.
Nonetheless, she was surprised to get the call from Business In The Community asking her to come to Blackpool.
She recalls: “Given I’m a Londoner, I asked, ‘Why?’
“I came up and had a look around. I thought this is a fun, interesting place and I have ended up here for two years.
For someone like me, it is a refreshing place to come to.
“It has a sort of entrepreneurial spirit all of its own.”
And in many ways, it was her ties to the capital that got her the job.
“I know my way around Whitehall,” she says.
And it is those connections built up over many years that are proving so helpful.
She adds: “There is a complete art form to knowing who the person (to speak to) is.
“We are talking to all the relevant people asking if Blackpool can be first in the queue.”
Certainly, getting the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to the resort last week, where they heard about the social and economic barriers to prosperity, suggests that message is being heard.
Baroness Valentine, made a life peer in the House of Lords in 2005, also sits on the Regenerating Seaside Towns and Communities Committee, which has heard plenty of evidence from Blackpool so far.
Now the challenge is making sure everyone is one the same page when it comes to getting the message out there. Which is why Pride of Place unveiled its 2030 Agenda For Action last year, setting out exactly what the town needs. Much like during her days at London First, Baroness Valentine hopes by getting people working together, they can achieve more.
She explains: “Everyone was always on the whole trying to do the best thing.
“It’s about getting people to stop working in silos and trust each other.
“I think in the public sector in a way it’s worse because people are fighting over government budgets.
“That can work against people doing things together.
“When I first came to Blackpool, there was a sense of, ‘We’ve done this before and it didn’t work’.”
The secret to moving past that, she says, was agreeing annual priorities and making sure they got done.
During the royal visit, Prince William and Kate were given a tour of Kirby Road to see how housing problems contribute to the social issues in Blackpool – as well as how the council-owned Blackpool Housing Company is finding new ways to overcome them.
Letting the assembled world media see the far less glamorous side of the resort is vital if we are to get the help we need, Baroness Valentine believes.
“It’s being honest about the challenges and getting the relevant people around the table,” she explains.
“The housing problem is at least in part caused by the way housing benefit is paid by national government.
“They are actually just paying landlords who can run slum conditions and still get their money.
“It’s about campaigning national government. They are contributing because of the way they deal with housing benefit.”
Blackpool has previously called for housing benefit to be devolved, putting councils in control. Now, Pride of Place has prioritised working with the government to “change the way benefits work to end the perverse incentive for private landlords” who can profit from inadequate housing.
Getting the government on board with the vision for Blackpool is key part of Baroness Valentine’s focus.
The recently announced Stronger Towns Fund, which will see more than £200m pumped into the North West is another opportunity.
“We want to be one of the first town deals to come out of that,” she adds.
“For me, it’s not about the money – it’s about the government generally trying to help us.”
The next step is making sure any money is put to good long-term use.
A vision for 2030
Blackpool Pride of Place has set out its wide-ranging vision for the future of the resort.
That includes tackling the housing problems, attracting new employers, improving transport on the Fylde coast and investing in future generations.
The key targets of the group’s 2030 Agenda For Action are to:
++ Create 10,000 jobs and grow the local economy by £1bn
++ Tackle deprivation in inner Blackpool and creating 3,000 new quality homes
++ Improve employment rates for 16 to 24-year-olds by focusing on health and preparing people for work
++ Improve the national perception of Blackpool and create a “buzz” to attract graduates, families and businesses.
‘Heading in the right direction’
Blackpool is on the right track, according to Baroness Jo Valentine.
She is not complacent about the well-publicised obstacles but she is optimistic about the future.
“We are doing great stuff trying to renovate the town and give our schoolchildren better career opportunities,” she says.
“Tourism in the town is heading in the right direction.”
She singles out areas like the high street as needing improvement but says developments including the new conference centre at the Winter Gardens and a five-star hotel at the former Sands venue showed the progress being made towards the overall goal of making Blackpool better place to live and work.
To do that, she adds: “It has got to be about the residents.”
While tourism is vital, it is important to make sure people get the skills they need and the opportunities locally to make the most of them.