Q&A: John Blackledge, Blackpool Council

John BlackledgeHad he not been born at the same time as a golden generation of British middle distance runners, John Blackledge may well have taken a very different career path. He missed out on competing at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles after finishing seventh in the 800m trials behind the likes of Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and Peter Elliott.
His dreams of becoming a full time athlete dashed, John pursued a career in local government instead. He first worked as a sports development officer before moving up the ranks to eventually become director of community and environmental services at Blackpool Council. His role takes in everything from the town’s world famous illuminations to waste and public protection.
His background in leisure services continues to shape his approach: ‘Leisure is about people and I want involve people in the decision making process,’ says John. ‘That’s very important to me – how to engage local people.’

 

Given Blackpool welcomes around 17 million visitors a year, would it be fair to say that being Britain’s biggest resort brings certain challenges in terms of managing the local environment?

Of course. In particular, the European dimension to this around water quality is really important to Blackpool. It’s not just a Blackpool Council issue, it’s an issue for everyone whether they are residents, businesses or other agencies. We’re working with hoteliers and others to look at how we can inform people about the right thing to do. It’s about residents and businesses alike understanding that they can affect the quality of our bathing water by not doing the right thing and putting inappropriate things down the toilet, sinks and drains. This is not acceptable and it’s impacting on the environment.

Collectively we can all make a difference to the water quality. Working with the Environment Agency, United Utilities and the community, we are making a difference to our water quality results – last year all of Blackpool’s sea water passed the stricter European standards.

In schools we have been focusing on marine life because it really helps the kids to understand the impact of what we do with waste.

 

Blackpool has a high concentration of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs). What issues does this bring and how are you dealing with them?

We have more than 3,000 HMOs in Blackpool. Many are former B&Bs that have been converted. One of the problems it creates is litter – it’s not easy to manage litter in areas where there is a high concentration of HMOs.

Like many resorts, we have a transient population and many live in HMOs. As a result we have an influx of people coming into the town for whom there’s no sense of place or pride in Blackpool. Getting them to recycle isn’t easy. There’s a huge amount of fly tipping and because bin bags are left at the back of properties the seagulls rip them open. It’s difficult to manage, although we are trialling areas where we provide seagull-proof black sacks which we hope will help. Our selective licensing schemes also make sure that landlords in certain areas of town have to provide good bin storage facilities for all their tenants.

Our approach is to try to make it easier for people to do the right thing. But we also use enforcement where necessary and our public protection team issue notices to people when they find evidence of fly tipping. It reflects our wider approach to the problem.

Some 36% of people in Blackpool haven’t got a car and so we have taken household waste recycling out onto the road with our Rover scheme. Mobile recycling makes it easier for people to do the right thing and they have embraced it. It also enables people to get rid of smaller items they no longer need and ties in with an award winning shop selling recycled items that we have opened at the household waste recycling centre. It turned over £62,000 in its first year, £90,000 last year and this year it will be around £120,000.

This closed loop recycling is creating local employment and is providing training opportunities and a place for people to buy second hand goods at low prices. We now have a renew shop as well that sells white goods and computers and also supplies appliances to people in need via our social fund.

 

Is there an element of coming up with unique solutions for a unique place?

Blackpool is unique. The number of visitors who come here is huge and after a lull in the 1990s, Blackpool really is back. Of course, being the UK’s biggest resort brings challenges, as mentioned, particularly around litter.

We’ve been working with Keep Britain Tidy to look at a new strategy to get the message to people coming to Blackpool to respect the town. On a hot summer’s day people leave a lot of litter around the promenade and the beach. We need to get the message out there before people come to Blackpool as well as while they are here.

That’s why we launched the LOVEmyBEACH campaign. We have involved local schools by getting them to write messages which appear on the sides of our vehicles – ‘please don’t leave litter on our beach’. It does make people think.

 

The European Commission is proposing that councils should recycle 70% of household waste by 2030. Is it achievable?

The first hurdle is 50% by 2020. Blackpool has gone over 40% for the first time. It’s interesting because we are obviously going through challenging times financially and when it comes to waste, doing the right thing is often costly. It’s a lot like eating more healthily.

What is happening is there’s a lot of work going on around new technology in terms of recycling and waste disposal and we need that investment to continue. But there needs to be behavioural change – that’s why places like Germany and Sweden have achieved so much, as there is a culture and mindset difference in relation to waste and recycling. As local authorities we are often good at doing things for people and need to let more people find their own solutions and take more responsibility. We haven’t quite got there yet and at a local and national level we need to do more work on it.

It will be challenging to reach the 2030 target. It seems to be an issue that’s increasingly being dealt with at a local rather than a national level and that’s how it should be. But we do need more joint working, both within areas and between local authorities. There isn’t enough consistency at present.

But if we can get a mindset change in this country in relation to how our actions affect the environment then there’s a good chance we will hit the target.

 

Is there money in waste? What can councils do to tap into it?

Waste is a resource. But it’s important to remember that global recycling markets are highly volatile and unpredictable.

We’ve got lots of income streams around waste. For example, we collect a lot of trade waste. But there’s also the efficiency side of it. We are looking into using the waste oil we collect to heat our renew shop because it will reduce our costs.

It’s a question of looking for where the opportunities are in your area. A resort like Blackpool has an abundance of food waste and so there would be money in a dedicated service that picks up food waste and separates out the organic waste with high calorific content. Overall, the more separation of waste we can achieve in the first place, the better.

 

If money were no object, what single environmental initiative or project would you introduce in Blackpool?

If money was no object, and it would need to be, then we would harness the energy from the sea in the form of tidal energy and use it to power homes and create jobs and skills around Blackpool.

Austin Macauley

Austin Macauley

Editor, Environment Journal

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