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21st August, 2019

Blackpool is being dug up

Caroline Coates

Originally published on November 9, 2018 as part of the Boosting Resilience Programme

Blackpool is being dug up. This is not for fracking. The famous illuminations are off. I am greeted by an enormous, teenage seagull that is on the look out for handouts. This town of dreams, escape, fun and promise is glistening.  Architecture is bathed in dazzling, jaw dropping light – which turns out the be the metaphor for the day.


“Societally powerful, transformative, enjoyable, thrilling light offers ‘good cultural value'” we are told, as we soon hear Light up the North (at The Light and the Creative Economy conference) of which Blackpool is a key player of course and host to Blackpool Illuminations


Over the day we learn £2.2 million was spent this year on Blackpool’s illuminations however they attract 3.2 million visitors spending £67 each! And that ‘ Light increases footfall’, ‘Light it and they will come’,’ Light is free’; the gags keep coming. We learn that light bathes the North across eight cities, and brings people out on the streets to gaze in wonder, create great memories linking folks to time and place. We even hear from the man, Tim Dunn, who lit Nelson Mandela’s funeral – which also takes my breath away. He is low key, funny and in love with his craft and has recently relocated from Johannesburg to Blackburn. His self-deprecation will go down well there.

We hear other stories of transformational ingenuity all funded by diverse revenue streams to pioneer extraordinary work in education: Lisa Alberti’s Manchester project which ensures inclusivity through creativity and art, for the long term school excluded aged 11- 19, , and my favourite ArtBandB, an enterprise that is funded by a wonderfully imaginative consortium transforming a down at heel Blackpool hotel, bought by Blackpool Council on behalf of art entrepreneurs (and co funded also by ACE), who populate it with art, and invite locals in to participate in activities – the visitors will pay in time for the participation. The model in my view is replicable but I am sure they have thought of that – sadly no overnight visitors until next year. I will be going. My aunt used to have a boarding house in Blackpool where she served ‘meat and tatties’ and I would love to see the transformation from 60’s sitcom interior to contemporary art space. I wonder if they can get rid of the smells of vintage breakfasts?  


It seems the market for investment in new and expanding social creative enterprises is rammed with positivity, ideas and pots of money. I am struck as a Northerner living in London by the openness and generosity of the spirit and the tenacity and imagination that flows forth in this slightly surreal setting, accompanied sounds off by rooms full of people singing along to breakfast karaoke, and discussions in the loo about ‘who the singer was, and was that his mother on the front row’? Very Peter Kay, and a very real but surreal juxtaposition of worlds – that somehow works since Blackpool is all about good times and suspension of the day to day.   


We hear buzzwords and phrases that are already out of fashion …’investment ready’ …’does investment money just benefit the middle classes’ or ‘does it hit those who can’t afford to do art’? We hear that ACE are ‘not big on due diligence’.

There is a debate about social impact and what it is: some ideas: health, poverty relief, job creation, education? Who cares really so long as new experiences are had and even minor positive change can be witnessed. One questioner asks ‘is it better to create 2 jobs or reach 64 million people’. Even one person touched or changed is worth the investment for me. What price a flourished life? There is a debate about grants versus investment. It depends, but we hear investment can hasten success quicker, as we have to adapt and change faster if things are not working. 


A wonderful session led by Nesta is rammed full of tips and openness and featuring Creative United and Social Investment Business which encourages dialogue and conversation. When you can talk about your idea and explain it well and with passion and reality to another person you are ‘ready’ ,and we need to plug our own gaps recognising that new or small creative businesses do not have all the skills …so don’t be afraid to ask experts. And lots of cash it seems is out there so ‘begin your conversations’ early.


I walk away and the sun is still shining, the diggers are still going and the day is still clear as a bell. My brain whirring about another life or other spaces and ‘managing assets’ in a different way. It all begins with friendliness, intimate and honest dialogue and imagination. And we heard lots of this today in this strange town of dreams.  


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