Greg Clark is Minister for Cities and MP for Tunbridge Wells.
Over the last year, I have been travelling around the country to negotiate City Deals for our towns and cities. Each of these deals transfers powers and resources from Government departments in London into the hands of local civic and business leaders, who have been able to show that they can make better use of it than leaving it to Whitehall.
It is in our cities and towns across the country that the election battleground will be fought during the year ahead. Most of the 40 seats we need to gain in order to win a majority – and the most marginal seats we need to defend – are in and around urban and suburban areas. In every one, people take a fierce local pride in their place and, very often, feel a resentment about the ebb of power and influence away to London over many decades. The people who know their area best are those who live and work there, and they will reward the party that champions the rejuvenation of their area.
In each of places I visit I meet inspirational Conservatives – Members of Parliament, councillors, business men and women and campaigners – who are reviving the Party’s fortunes in the places where we need to win. But because their achievements are not principally in London, they rarely get the attention they deserve. So, during the next few weeks on this site, I want to feature some of the leaders of the Conservative revival in our towns and cities.
There couldn’t be a better place to start than in Blackpool – with Paul Maynard MP. Paul won the seat of Blackpool North and Cleveleys in 2010, with a majority of just over two thousand: the first time we had won a seat there since 1992. Seeing Paul in action in his patch, as I did earlier this month, it is obvious why he won. He has made himself Blackpool’s champion – immersing himself in the challenges his town faces and establishing a reputation as a battler. As he has put it: “It is so important to be committed to local concerns and to focus on these, not Westminster. People could see I would cause a fuss if a fuss was needed”.
Paul told me that he always has his eye on the fundamental changes that need to be made to make a lasting difference, rather than to get lost in the ephemeral. “Where does Blackpool want to be? What are the challenges facing Cleveleys? How best to economically develop Thornton? We’re at the top or bottom of every health index you don’t want to be top or bottom of. We have the fourth most deprived ward in the UK in my constituency, the highest male suicide rate, very high levels of alcoholism – you name it. And we need to transition Blackpool. Our skills base and our infrastructure need work before we can attract investors. We need to encourage diversification of opportunities in the job market, retain more of our students. You can get in and out of Blackpool but you can’t get around the Fylde coast.”
Paul has placed himself at the forefront of leading the drive to answer these questions – convening an Economic Roundtable bringing together local business leaders, the colleges, the local authorities, the voluntary sector and “anyone at all who has a lever” in developing an economic strategy for Blackpool. I met with it during my visit this month, and the unity of purpose that is developing in Blackpool and the Fylde Coast was striking.
Paul’s Blackpool roundtable is informing the Growth Deal I am negotiating with Lancashire, in which his local leadership can lead to new powers, and devolved budgets, to tackle these and other local challenges.
While being a force for the future of Blackpool, Paul is very clear that electoral success for a Conservative in an area with a majority of non-Conservative voters is as personal as it is political. “The key challenge” he says “is to be authentic. If you’re asked a question give an honest answer, don’t over-varnish or over-commit. Don’t talk down to people. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Work on the day-to-day stuff that people find important – the local issues. Be approachable, available and on their side”.
After only four years as a Blackpool MP, Paul Maynard has a local profile that is exceptional – and for all the right reasons. No-one doubts that he throws his heart and soul into forging a good future for Blackpool. His mounting local respect comes from his reputation as a strong and effective force for change in the town – a reputation that benefits our Party as well as Blackpool.