There is always a challenge in being an MP covering parts of Blackpool. The town is often at the wrong end of every league table going. If you spend too much time focusing on what is going wrong, you can easily be accused of talking the town down. Ignore the negatives, and the optimism can seem out-of-place, and worse, it will do little to tackle the very real problems we do face in so many areas.
So I try to strike a balance, never for one minute overlooking the consequences of poverty in some parts of my constituency, but equally never forgetting to celebrate the strength of our local community and civil society. Even in some of the most challenged parts of my constituency, there are groups of people trying to do their best to keep a sense of community going, and all of them deserve both recognition and praise. Whether it is helping to give the customers of the Comfort Zone at North Shore Methodist Church their Christmas Dinner, working with local residents on traffic problems, to supporting local cultural groups like our many choirs, my work shows me that Blackpool is nothing if not a town of contrasts and variety.
I am always struck by how many people tell me that they don’t go into Blackpool town centre as much as they used to. This is bad news for the local businesses in the town centre, and bad news for all of us on the Fylde, as it is our town centre. I sometimes worry that the Council sees the town centre as somewhere for tourists only, but I believe we need to strike a balance between a town centre that attracts visitors, but one that local residents also feel comfortable in.
What puts people off? The cost of parking iscertainly one thing… and I’m pleased that after much agitation there is a proper examination of parking costs in the town centre. No point having empty car parks like the Talbot Road one. I want to see an expansion of the ‘pay on exit’ car parks, so we don’t have to guess how long we might be, and run the risk of a fine. But I also want to see us learning from what works elsewhere – other towns like Blackburn and Rochdale have a ‘free from three’ policy where parking after 3pm is free. This helps stop the town centre becoming deserted as the afternoon wears on.
I also know that not everyone feels safe of an evening in the town centre. Whilst I believe some of the fear to be overstated, if that is what local people feel, then Council and police have a responsibility to try to reassure. One idea would be for Blackpool to seek a Purple Flag – the accreditation mark for town centres offering a safe and enjoyable night out. It’s a bit like the Blue Flags we have for beaches, but emphasises accessibility and public safety. Aiming for that would show that Blackpool really is a safe place to go of an evening.