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Candyfloss to Casinos?

Candyfloss to Casinos?The man from the company appointed to regenerate Blackpool recently gave a talk to Councillors from what he referred to as "The Fylde sub-region". Doug Garrett is the Chief Executive of 'Re:Blackpool' - a regeneration company set up by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to deliver the Blackpool Masterplan. Unlike previous arrangements for regeneration, ReBlackpool has no planning based powers, its aim is to bring the public and private sector together to achieve results.

In essence it is a con, but not so much of a trick. The aim is to convince people to have confidence to invest or re-invest in a re-vitalised town with a new vision.

He outlined Blackpool's well documented problems which are based on a rapidly declining visitor numbers, and specifically drew out the point that the seasonal economy is now unsustainable because visitor peaks are lowering, and the troughs between them are getting wider.

The implication here is that Blackpool is targeting its future toward an increase in visitor numbers based on more steady and all-year-round attractions.

So far, so good.

The engines to drive (or at least fund) the regeneration company are the North West Development Agency (which is a ten year old regionally-based conglomerate of all the previous Government regeneration agencies, and has money coming out of its ears), and Blackpool Council, which claims not to have. The idea is that it will be something called a three year rolling programme.

The key features are:

1). The Casino, Conference and Leisure facilities planned for the old Central Station and environs. The hope is to create a 350 million feature with 3, 4 and 5 star hotels, bars, and conference centre to help even out visitor numbers

2). The redevelopment of the North Station area which is to feature civic facilities, courts (because they are in the way of he above scheme where they are now) and new retail outlets. This is expected to cost around 230 million.

3). The 'People's Playground' which includes the green spaces around the new 'entrance' to Blackpool, and entertainment features such as artificial beaches created on the promontories currently being built out from Blackpool promenade. The aim here is to produce "surprising reasons to come to Blackpool". Twenty artists of international renown will be recruited to work with local people to produce features such as a reproduction of Stonehenge with lights and watersprays etc. Rough cost estimate is 100 million.

4). Other features such as the tramway, airport, and the Hounds Hill shopping centre are also scheduled for regeneration.

It is hoped all this work will attract 1.6 billion (not a word we are able to use very often) of inward investment and produce 20,000 new jobs - which according to our counting means that each job will cost taxpayers in the region of 34,000 (on the basis that 680 million will be spent in attracting the private sector money).

The airport is a critical part of the scheme in order to bring the number of worldwide casino visitors envisaged. So it follows that if the casino doesn't materialise, the expansion of the airport is in doubt.

According to the speaker, the lack of a casino would produce other problems, because it is expected a casino will bring in 200 million that is not readily available elsewhere, so no casino, much slower progress.

Someone asked if there was a 'Plan B' in case of no casino. The answer was "No, there is no plan B except for the conference and leisure facilities".

Another question asked what impact the development would have on the South Fylde rail line. The answer was that there were "no current plans" that would affect the line, and no current plans to extend it into the centre of Blackpool.

In response to a comment about the futuristic pictures that appeared in the Gazette recently, counterbalance understood the speaker to say they were not expected to be built exactly like that, the pictures were just to show that the company had the vision and imagination necessary for the future.

So putting this altogether, what does it mean, what is actually going to happen?

counterbalance is inclined to Councillor Paul Hayhurst's view that  "This is another pipe-dream." The talk was high on aspiration and vision, but low on practicality and real proposals. If the super casino doesn't materialise, plans for the airport are in doubt, and the whole process will slow.

The plan for a new year-round conference centre is solid, but could be done without the sort of expenditure envisaged in the masterplan, so - although we are not usually in the business of predicting the unknown - we think that with no casino we will see a revamped seaward promenade, an entranceway that is dislocated from and at odds with, the rest of town, a welcome new conference centre, and a reduction in the number of smaller hotels and boarding-houses that are (without intending to be, and trying hard not to be), probably the main cause of Blackpool's demise because their very existence causes an excess of supply over demand, which keeps tariffs at a level that precludes adequate funding for property re-investment.

If the casino comes, infrastructure renewal might be more extensive, but don't expect the futuristic pictures you have been tempted with. Temptation is all they are for.

So the aim is to move Blackpool's image from candyfloss to casinos, For Blackpool's sake we hope it works, but we can't help feeling the scheme is a house of cards and has about as much substance as the candyfloss did.

Dated:  25 July 2006


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