There is always going to be 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 have always tried 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 Blackpool North and Cleveleys, 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 is certainly 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.
Thornton-Cleveleys is changing, in my view for the better, but we need to ensure we conserve what is worth conserving at the same time as enabling the economic growth we are clearly starting to see. I want to make sure Cleveleys remains a place that can attract coach trips – that underpins a more diverse range of shops that otherwise might not exist – but a town centre that is also sensitive to the needs of local residents. With the development of the cinema, more now happens on the coastal strip, for example, and that changes where people walk and the businesses they pass.
Change can often be a concern. No-one really wanted to see the ‘green market’ closed down – if only because there was a perception that Poundland needed Cleveleymore than Cleveleys needed a Poundland. For the same reason, I fought long and hard to try to persuade Lancashire Constabulary to keep the police station open - and I’m still arguing for a shopfront location for local police where people can feel comfortable going to report crime and engage with the forces of law and order.
I'm also aware of the impact parking charges have on shoppers and on businesses. When parking is free in nearby towns, there is a justified feeling in Cleveleys that the town is playing second fiddle to its neighbours. I want to deliver a long-term solution and ensure Lancashire County Council sticks to the promise it has made to me that if the town doesn't want parking meters on the streets, it won't get them.
When things occur in Cleveleys, I try my best to get involved.
I was fortunate enough to be holding a bus surgery on the day the bus station was due to be reopened, so helped to get that sorted out. When the waters rose along Victoria Road West, creating problems for the businesses, I made a point of seeing for myself, and initiating an ongoing process to improve how we deal with the differing sorts of floods faced by the area – whether it be improving the sea defences, or making sure the gullies are properly cleaned out on a regular basis. I've fought hard over the last two years to get genuine answers about the flooding which impacted so many homes and to make clear to those agencies responsible work must take place to ensure it does not happen again.
Of course, Cleveleys is more than just the area around Victoria Road, and I represent a large chunk of northern Thornton as well – areas that have very differing needs. Improving economic opportunities, with well-paid and sustainable jobs, is a priority for me. And that means addressing skills gaps locally, but also improving the infrastructure – both aspects which put investors off. The A585 is a constant complaint, and progress is painfully slow, but the Government have recognised its importance as an economic artery by providing money to tackle some of the pinch-points, and work is under way to address the more complex junctions further down towards the M55. Wyre Borough Council are also developing important proposals to upgrade the road which I will be enthusiastically championing in my meetings with Government Ministers. Work is due to start next year on a new bypass which will end the jams on Mains Lane and speed up journeys to and from the area. Congestion relief work is already being carried out on the roundabout at Norcross, to ensure maximum benefit from this £150m scheme.
I'm also keen to see an expansion of our tram network, using the mothballed Fleetwood to Poulton rail line. An enhanced light rail network would connect Thornton to the national rail system and help cut congestion and air pollution. I've spoken with Ministers and potential operators and there is a real enthusiasm to get things done.
In the end, one of the the best ways to reduce pressure on the A585 is to ensure that local people have the skills needed to take the new jobs being created in areas such as the Hillhouse Industrial Park. Economic development is occurring in Thornton-Cleveleys – and I want constituents to be able to take advantage of that. Not all proposals are good – I remain implacably opposed to Halite. But one thing is clear, and that is that we need to ensure the pressures on housing don’t see Fleetwood merging into Thornton and Cleveleys, and on that point I am crystal clear.