Page last updated at 00:02 GMT, Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Blackpool strives for better future

By Katie Hunt
Business reporter, BBC News, Blackpool, Lancashire

Blackpool Tower
Blackpool's tower has greeted tourists since 1894.

Bathed in the glow of the fading winter sunlight, a tall crane manoeuvres heavy building machinery into position on Blackpool's promenade.

A stone's throw from the resort's famous tower, the construction work on the headland forms part of an 87m ($127m) redevelopment of Blackpool's seafront, scheduled to be finished this year.

It is one of several projects that Blackpool hopes will transform the town from a tawdry seaside resort into a more enticing place to visit and to live.

"Blackpool has seen a major decline," says Doug Garrett, chief executive of the town's regeneration body ReBlackpool.

History

As the black-and-white photos of crowded beaches dotted around the Town Hall show, Blackpool's heyday was in the early part of the last century.

Doug Garrett
Blackpool was the fun side of the industrial revolution
Doug Garrett, chief executive, ReBlackpool

The town was Britain's first mass tourist resort, it thrived until the 1960s when package holidays to Spain took off.

"It was the fun side of the industrial revolution," says Mr Garrett.

Since then the town has entered a slow but steady decline.

The resort has headed downmarket, catering to stag and hen parties as the clubs touting "see-through" dance floors and lap dancing testify.

But in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, people visit in droves.

More than 9.8 million people visited the town in 2007, attracted by the town's three piers, golden sands, six theatres and the illuminations.

But this is down from 20 million in the 1980s, and visitors often don't stay for long and spend relatively little, says Helen France, executive director of tourism at Blackpool Council.

Housing glut

As tourists have sought more exotic climes, the town's economy has suffered.

Boarded- up shop
Some parts of the town are very run down.

The seasonal nature of the industry means that the town has the second average lowest wages in the UK.

Away from the promenade, pound shops, pawnbrokers and discount booze shops dominate the high streets.

Unlike many parts of the UK, Blackpool has a housing glut as many of the town's once thriving guesthouses have now been converted into flats and bedsits and this attracts a transient population.

"A lot of people, often on benefit, come here to take advantage of the cheap housing," says Ms France. "This creates social issues."

Casino betrayal

The town had pinned its hopes on a Las Vegas-style super casino to revive its fortunes but, while tipped by many as the clear front-runner, Blackpool's bid failed.

Blackpool Seafront
Blackpool's promenade has had a multi-million pound overhaul.

"It was like a bereavement," says Mr Garrett, who is still smarting from the decision in 2007 to award the casino to Manchester before the project was abandoned altogether.

The casino would have occupied a prime site in the town centre, now a car park, and attracted much needed private sector investment to fund the town's regeneration and create jobs.

A government report in the wake of the failed bid warned that the town "contains extreme levels of deprivation" and that the situation was worsening.

New Plans

Blackpool has pressed ahead with some of the regeneration projects conceived as part of the casino bid.

The town wants to improve shopping facilities and the provision of education and housing to make it a more attractive place to live

It is upgrading its tourism infrastructure to appeal to more upmarket tourists.

We need to do something radical to give the town the future it needs
Helen France, Blackpool Council

Some of these plans are bearing fruit.

The seafront redevelopment is not far from completion and the V&A Museum is considering a tie-up with Blackpool that could see a seafront arts building being opened.

The town is proud of the newly revamped Houndshill shopping centre that should encourage people to shop locally.

Mr Garrett says that 60% of the town's population was travelling to neighbouring towns such as Preston to shop.

"Blackpool has lots of deprivation but the nearby area has much deeper pockets. We need to hold on to that business," he says.

Local people have welcomed the plans, but say it is too little too late.

"They should have done all this 15-20 years ago," says taxi driver Eugene McNamee.

"Then Blackpool would have been able to go and go and go."

Sterling hopes

The town is confident that the economic downturn will not derail the regeneration plans, but it could mean that certain projects are delayed - particularly those tied to the property market.

Blackpool beach and tower
Blackpool's hey-day was in the early part of the last century.

One report by accountants Hacker Young suggests that Blackpool is the city likely to be most insulated from the financial crisis - though perhaps this better reflects that the town gained least during the boom years.

The resort could also benefit as the weak pound and the credit crunch encourage more people to holiday in the UK.

"People will travel less overseas," says Mr Garrett. "There's an opportunity for us there."

Travelodge opened two hotels in the town last month, confident that the fall in sterling's value will persuade people to stick closer to home.

Impetus

Blackpool's revival is expected to receive fresh impetus when Sir Howard Bernstein, who played a critical role in Manchester's turnaround, unveils his review of the resort's regeneration plans early in the new year.

Mr Bernstein took up a part-time post as ReBlackpool's chairman earlier this year to drive forward the resort's regeneration.

He stepped down from his post on the London Olympics Delivery Authority to concentrate on the role.

"We don't want any more tinkering at the edges," says Ms France at Blackpool Council.

"We need to do something radical to give the town the future it needs."

Her view is widely shared.

Driving through the town centre, Mr Garrett passes a Woolworths' store plastered in yellow posters advertising its closing down sale.

Like Blackpool, it was once a thriving, upmarket destination and a name that inspires fond memories.

"We have to hope that we avoid the same fate," he says.

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SEE ALSO
Final phase of seawall renovation
26 Dec 08 |  Lancashire
Resort's masterplan under review
19 Nov 08 |  Lancashire
Tower venue gets 4m grant boost
01 Aug 08 |  Lancashire
Regeneration expert helps resort
07 Jul 08 |  Lancashire
Resort's 300m for regeneration
26 Feb 08 |  Lancashire
New plans to regenerate Blackpool
06 Aug 07 |  Lancashire
Master plan for resort revamp
12 Mar 03 |  England

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