King of the Seaside

“Blackpool is different”. This is the message coming through from all sectors. I’m fascinated by the hostility to Brighton, precocious little sister with an irritating habit of fluking it and marrying a millionaire.

Hastings has more right to be angsty about its big, brash neighbour down the coast, but I think it hardly registers with us. I know that very few people in my home town really want us to be ‘the new Brighton’ anyway. It’s a bit like the Deptford response when excitable journalists talk about ‘the new Hoxton’!

I LOVE BLACKPOOL. I love the way it’s such hard work, overflowing with its own distinctive legacy, issues, opportunities. And the way there is always another surprise – like the superb Number 1 St Luke’s B&B for £80 a night. These lovely 4-bed detached houses go for £150k. Almost everything about Blackpool (including still-cheap property) is found somewhere else as well, but here it is bigger, brighter, harder, more intense. So there’s a strip of acute poverty behind the seafront – that’s what you’ll find in Yarmouth too. So one of its three piers is by Eugenius Birch – we’ve got a better one in Hastings but they’ve got two spare piers and a great big Tower. So the council are pumping money into the seafront like concrete into Deepwater – well, Scarborough and Southport have also leveraged millions of European, central and regional money. It’s just that these comparisons pale next to Blackpool. Round every corner you find another building or site with potential, all of them massively undervalued. The council has taken ownership of the 518 foot Tower and the 7 acre Winter Garden site (“if you can own the risk you can manage the risk”). I was told a couple of years ago that more than 50% of Blackpool’s population has no qualification at all. That trumps Hastings previous record of being 354th out of 354 local education authorities. Sure it’s depressing. But for me it’s inspiring because the fantastic potential of the seaside means if we’re smart and we work together then we can actually do something about it…

I’ve been talking to people in seaside towns about what we have in common for five years. I told the CLG Select Committee that seaside strategy should not be left to the Regional Development Agencies – that Hastings, Scarborough and Blackpool have more in common with each other than each of them do with Guildford, Leeds and Manchester. I’d go further now – Hastings and Lewes have different economies and different economic development needs – so do Scarborough and the North York Moors, so do Blackpool and Preston. So as the LEPs form and put in their statements to government I have been gently recommending a SEASIDE ENTERPRISE PARTNERSHIP – an approach focused on seaside towns in need of financial help with economic growth and business development – able to apply for ‘Regional’ Growth Fund (someone tell me they’ve changed that name?!).

One of the big conclusions from Blackpool is that having the capital to throw at physical infrastructure investment is important and useful – it’s an appropriate payback for decades of underinvestment – but it doesn’t change some fundamentals. One typical seaside problem – often mentioned but rarely written – is the terrible negativity of local populations (not all local people but enough to make it feel widespread). The glass is more than half empty, there’s nothing we can do, and when the council come they’ll probably fill it with rat-poison, which will be no more than this town deserves. Angela told me a story about talking to ‘one of my HomeStart mums’ who said she remembered the pier, used to love it. When Angela said we were getting somewhere, the woman said “nah, they’ll never give anything to this town cos we’re losers”. That isn’t true, but it takes a lot of time and effort and respect to turn that round. But OMG it’s cheaper than tarmac, or house-building, or sorting out towers and piers and winter gardens. We have to do both, and we have to do it innovatively – by using the towers and the piers and the winter gardens (and the rest) to give people the chance to change their outlook and life opportunities.

I’ve got so many pics of Blackpool I’m going to have to release them in batches. Which means learning Flickr. Which might take a while. But here’s a few that are pretty good…



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