I love Blackpool, mainly because of the rides, from sedate Blackpool trams to the rides at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, culminating in the enormous Big One. There is surely no finer Blackpool experience than plummeting towards the promenade at 87mph, as the sun shines on the sea.
I’m aware this is a minority view. To quote Tony Blair, “Blackpool can be a great town and has a unique quality, but it needs work done on it.” His Labour conference there in 2002 – the one when Bill Clinton popped into a seafront McD’s for late night sustenance, and which I covered as a freelancer for the Guardian’s Online tech section (thanks again @nmcintosh) while staying in a B&B full of party delegates – was among the last before politicians moved their conferences elsewhere.
The reason the politicians, and many other people, left was lack of investment. In 2002, I stayed in a B&B with shared bathrooms, the standard option. En suite rooms were a luxury that you paid dearly for – specifically, by finding yourself in the Norbreck Castle hotel, a gigantic lump of crenelated concrete some miles north of the conference centre. The battered Winter Gardens were fine for hosting adventure playgrounds, but not a modern conference, with stands shoved in all over the place. Even in 2012, several hotels proudly boast the fact they have lifts. (Not that this is a bad thing, just that you would probably expect it.)
Blackpool Pleasure Beach, which has been family run since 1896, has for years been the exception that proves the under-investment rule: the Thompson family have continued to spend and innovate, building new rides – spending £12m on the Big One in 1994 – while maintaining the heritage ones (several of which are actually listed). In 2003, they built a much needed-new hotel, the Big Blue, a good-value four star with character, cheery staff, a quality in-house restaurant, smart rooms (many looking out across the park), a ban on the stag and hen parties that put everyone else off, and – a recent innovation – its own private gate into the Pleasure Beach if you’re going in first thing. (It has lifts as well.)
But the rest of the town had been declining for years. So visiting last month it was great to see, and ride, on the new and improved Blackpool trams. These are excellent, better than other recent trams like Manchester’s and decisive in the question of whether Blackpool is better than Scheveningen (which is at the end of a tramline taking in The Hague and Delft… but with worse trams). The carriages, made by Bombardier, are very wide and joined together, which along with the huge windows for sea views create a spacious feel. The stops have raised platforms level with the trams’ flat floors, making them accessible to wheelchairs and buggies. One of the friendly conductors said that many people stay on at Fleetwood, riding up and down the line for the fun of it.
Blackpool has also been spending on typically unsubtle public art along the tram route, including the world’s biggest glitter ball – clearly visible from the top of the Big One – giant fishtails and a vast mural of gags that is perhaps best appreciated from the top of the Tower.
But, as Tony Blair used to say, a lot done, a lot left to do. Given the failure of the casino plan, what Blackpool should do is to use the plot of land it had earmarked for the casino for an excellent conference and hotel complex. It needs to bribe Virgin Trains to re-establish direct fast services from London and Birmingham, at least when events are on, and it needs to persuade its army of hotels and B&Bs to splash out too. (Some have innovated – at least one was auctioning spare space on eBay in 2002 – but it seems rare.)
Then it needs to attract some big events, to show it is ready to hold party conferences once again. There is an annual event which currently oscillates between Manchester and Liverpool, attracts senior professionals and journalists from across the country, which could take a professional interest in why Blackpool has the lowest male longevity in England – and, to be fair, the council’s public health work, including its Boris-style bike hire scheme.
NHS Confed in Blackpool? I dare to dream.