A level-headed approach
Much has been said and written about the government’s levelling up agenda since its red wall breakthrough across the North at the last general election.
The aim is to address the inequality that exists between different parts of the country and ‘level up’ underperforming and left-behind parts of the UK through a programme of infrastructure development and investment in education, skills and scientific R&D.
The Northern Research Group, made up of Tory MPs from those former Labour strongholds that turned blue, is now urging Prime Minister Boris Johnson to take bold steps to achieve that goal.
However, the challenge of turning rhetoric into concrete action that will make a real difference in places like Blackpool was highlighted in a report published in January.
The Centre for Cities research predicted the town, which saw its Blackpool South constituency turn from Labour to Conservative in 2019, will be the third hardest place in the UK to ‘level up’.
The town has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the UK. One in 10 working-age adults were claiming unemployment benefits last August and the crushing impact of Covid-19 on its tourism and hospitality sector, vitally important to the local economy, has taken its toll.
Centre for Cities chief executive Andrew Carter warned: “Covid-19 will leave a lasting legacy. While the economic damage could be felt in many cities and towns for decades, it will be worse in places that the Prime Minister has promised to level up.”
His think tank’s report may have painted a bleak picture, but amid the Covid uncertainty there are encouraging signs of regeneration and revival across Blackpool and a growing belief that the resort is well-placed to benefit from the government’s agenda and any cash that goes with it.
At the end of last year, the council formally signed the terms of its £39.5m Town Deal and welcomed “a new era of partnership working with the government”.
Awarded from the £3.6bn Towns Fund, the support the deal will provide is set to boost to the town’s regeneration and post-Covid economic recovery.
And even more importantly, according to those involved in the successful fund bid, it opens the door for a wider conversation with government about future ways to support and revitalise the town.
There is much to be gained from those talks. Plans have been set out for a new £4bn Levelling Up Fund, investing in local projects worth up to £20m across the UK. Details of how it will work have yet to be revealed but Blackpool is already getting ready to bid for its share.
Then there is the new UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which intends to replace money that previously came from the EU. Again, it is a pot of money the town could benefit from.
Paul Smith, who chairs the Blackpool Town Deal board, is a former global chairman of law firm Eversheds Sutherland. He is also special projects director for Business in the Community (BITC), one of the Prince of Wales’ charities, and leads on its ‘Blackpool Pride of Place’ project.
He says: “The government has its levelling up agenda and by any view Blackpool qualifies for that. It’s a lot of money to go after, and we are going after it. We will be bidding hard.”
BITC launched its flagship Pride of Place project in Blackpool, creating a partnership of local leaders focused on regenerating the town and creating a unified vision for the future.
It has created an ambitious 2030 vision for the town, setting out an agenda for action to be achieved by that year, including the Town Deal.
Paul says: “That 2030 vision means we are very clear about what we want to achieve. It is about getting the right funding to support the projects.”
“A lot of other towns say ‘there is money there, let’s put together a few schemes and make a bid’.
“Blackpool has a big vision and we have got a strategy. We know where we want to be and we’re coming from it from the view of ‘give us support and we’ll get there’.
“We’ve got more Town Deal money than any other town by a long way. That demonstrates the government has confidence in what we are all trying to do.”
Paul, who is originally from Burnley, is under no illusion when it comes to the challenge of deprivation in Blackpool. He believes the key to tackling it is attracting new businesses, jobs and apprenticeships.
He took up his role when approached because of his fond memories of Blackpool as a youngster. He adds: “I was very impressed by the people I met and the ambition there is for the town. The schemes coming out of the ground show it can deliver.”
Nick Gerrard, growth and prosperity programme director at Blackpool Council, agrees and says progress has been made despite the pandemic, with some large-scale projects gathering pace, including the second phase of the Talbot Gateway regeneration project.
He also describes the levelling up agenda as “a big opportunity” for the town. He adds: “Yes, we are at the wrong end of many tables but it provides opportunities because of that. The Levelling Up Fund must benefit Blackpool, surely.
“I’ve no doubt our delivery and the partnership we have involving the community, politicians and businesses is a key reason why we’ve got such a large town deal settlement.
“We’ve got ambition but we’ve also got a track record of delivery on that ambition. Top civil servants have to trust what you are saying and doing.
“We’re aiming to build on the Town Deal work. To look at things that will accelerate growth.
“People are believing more in Blackpool and the great business and investment story that is going on here. Blackpool is beginning to be taken more seriously outside the town. We want to build on that momentum.”
There have been knockbacks. Blackpool’s £25m bid for Future High Street funding was unsuccessful.
However, two of the ten Lancashire ‘shovel ready’ schemes to benefit from Lancashire’s £34m Getting Building fund are in Blackpool, including £5m for the extension of its Houndshill shopping centre.
The council bought Houndshill in for £47.6m in November 2019 as part of its long-term strategy to revitalise the town centre.
As a result of the government funding, in February the council sealed three key deals for the extension, which it believes will help transform the town centre.
They included signing of a 25-year lease for a nine-screen, IMAX-ready multimedia cinema, conference and entertainment centre.
The development will see Tower Cinemas (Blackpool), trading as MMC Cinemas, launch an 850-seat venue, with nine state-of-the-art digital screens, including a giant Premium Large Screen Format IMAX-ready central screen, set to be the largest in the North West.
Flexible seating will allow screens to double as conference venue spaces, designated incubator space for the region’s digital and media start-up businesses, and an e-sports café.
The Houndshill extension will also include two restaurants totalling 3,760 sq ft and the local authority says it is in “advanced negotiations” with leisure operators.
John Sullivan, founder of MMC Cinemas, is bullish about Blackpool’s future. He has been developing cinemas in all corners of the globe for 30 years including Australia, South Korea and the Gulf. He also founded The Light Cinemas independent chain in the UK.
He says: “Blackpool has an astonishing heritage as a leisure destination for the North West region and beyond, and this multi-media centre is set to re-cement that reputation.
“Our ambition is for the space to become a hive for creativity in the town, tapping into all of the local developments and opening up new opportunities for the area.”
Making a big deal of things
Here are the projects that will benefit from Blackpool’s successful Town Deal bid:
Blackpool central courts relocation - a catalyst to the delivery of the Blackpool Central development project, destined to be the biggest single investment In Blackpool for more than a century.
With £300m of private investment, Blackpool Central will deliver a new, year-round leisure facility on the former Central Station site, creating more than 1,000 jobs and attracting an additional 600,000 visitors per year.
Multiversity - A new world-class learning facility that aims to be the country’s first carbon-negative university centre.
Based in the heart of the town centre, it will increase the range of local skills that are suited to the local employment needs, help over 1,000 new learners into education and gain qualifications, and improve the percentage of working-age population with qualifications.
Blackpool & The Fylde College will relocate from its existing campus. Through a high quality, technical and professional curriculum, co-created with local employers and in partnership with Lancaster University, the Multiversity will support skills growth. It has been described as a “real game-changer”.
Daryl Platt, the college’s vice-principal for engagement, says the new campus will play a major role in driving up skills and meeting the productivity challenge. He adds: “The aim is to create a more modern and flexible campus that integrates with business and the community.”
Investment in infrastructure at Blackpool Airport Enterprise Zone - to increase development opportunities, improve access and advance both physical and digital connectivity. It will open up 15 hectares of land for development, deliver 32,000 sq m of new high-quality commercial floor space enabling around 12 new businesses to locate on the zone, creating up to 600 new jobs and creating 1.5km of new road access to improve traffic flow.
Revoe Community Sports Village – The project aims to transform the inner area of Blackpool through redevelopment of an abandoned site, a new community sports facility, new commercial floor space, development of local skills, and improved land and property.
The Edge - This proposed new incubation office space in Stanley Buildings will provide a centre of excellence for entrepreneurs and a focal point for nurturing growth of small businesses. The project will deliver high-quality, affordable commercial floor space in the town centre, provide infrastructure to support full fibre connectivity, and create the opportunity for closer collaboration with employers.
Blackpool Illuminations modernisation – This project will renew and re-invigorate Britain’s biggest light show, as well as building on the successful Lightpool Festival. It will deliver upgraded electrical infrastructure to support town centre lighting, create new light-based features and art installations on the Promenade, created in conjunction with recognised artists. The five-year investment seeks to permanently extend the season to rejuvenate a tourism industry blighted by the pandemic.
Blackpool Youth Hub – This will provide a virtual and physical focal point for coordinated delivery of employability and skills provision for 16-24-year-olds NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training), including those recently made redundant and unable to complete in-work vocational qualifications and apprenticeships. The project will deliver a renovated facility, engage with 500 employers and assist 500 new learners into education.
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