Gambling on a winning future

Paul Vallely's Notebook


The elderly guitarist in Pineapple Jack in the lunchtime cabaret at the Victoria Bar looked a bit like Enoch Powell. Mind you, the Hawaiian shirt and the wah-wah pedal gave the game away, even to those Powellites who live so far in the past that they have not yet caught up with the great parliamentarian's death. Beyond that, the Winter Gardens at Blackpool this week carried only the faintest of echoes of the world of politics whose triumphs and disasters have thrilled party conferences there throughout the years.

The elderly guitarist in Pineapple Jack in the lunchtime cabaret at the Victoria Bar looked a bit like Enoch Powell. Mind you, the Hawaiian shirt and the wah-wah pedal gave the game away, even to those Powellites who live so far in the past that they have not yet caught up with the great parliamentarian's death. Beyond that, the Winter Gardens at Blackpool this week carried only the faintest of echoes of the world of politics whose triumphs and disasters have thrilled party conferences there throughout the years.

There was no conference in Blackpool this year. For the first time in 30 years, the blowsy Northern seaside town was bereft of both the political classes and the large amounts of cash they bring with them.

It is not the Tories who are the problem. They were there last year, and they are coming back in 2001. In the meantime, the Winter Gardens was keeping its seats warm. In the theatre where Michael Portillo would have spoken, Danny La Rue and the fabulous Tiller Girls were entertaining a similar audience - "the grey and the gay" as the Winter Gardens' managing director, Marc Etches, delicately put it. Instead of the great Eurosceptic rally, there was The Grumbleweeds' Big Big Laughter Show. And questions on how the Tories will pay for their shopping-list of spending pledges could, with a similar prospect of comprehension, be put to Safire, International Illusionists.

No, it is not the Tories who are the problem. It is New Labour. They were last here in 1998, the year that Virgin Trains subjected thousands of metropolitan movers and shakers to the full awfulness of the levels of service the rest of the nation has grown used to. (I was on one from Euston to Manchester that arrived three hours late on Tuesday.) But it was not just the train service that the Islington set found intolerable; it was the entire town.

The conference facilities and accommodation were not up to the standards of Brighton and Bournemouth. The promenade was dirty and tawdry. And, worst of all, the image of the resort, which is still just too cloth-cap. After all, the Winter Gardens is also home to the world annual pigeon fair, the national brass band competition and, biggest of all, the World Ballroom Dancing Championships. All those sequins. How unspeakably vulgar.

Marc Etches, the boss of Leisure Parcs, which owns the Winter Gardens, is hoping to persuade Labour to return to Blackpool one day. But he has no plans for an expensive refurbishment of the Grade II listed building, with its great iron-and-glass dome and Empress Ballroom, which can hold more than 5,000 dancers.

Instead, Etches, who turned down a top job at EuroDisney to take up the Blackpool challenge, plans to turn the Winter Gardens into a shopping complex. More ambitiously, he wants to reinvent Blackpool as Britain's answer to Las Vegas, creating a massive convention centre and a seafront gambling strip of large hotels, which would offer conference-goers their every desire. Leisure Parcs has made a submission to Jack Straw, who is currently reviewing the UK gambling laws to liberalise them to allow US-style instant-access high-roller gambling. He wants hotels, each with casinos of 70 tables and 2,500 no-limit slot machines. Blackpool's present limit is a 30p stake and a £15 cash win.

"It's radical," he enthuses over a scale model of his dream, surrounded by drawings of the lavish Pharaoh's Palace complex, which would be phase one. "But Blackpool needs it. The town has the 12th lowest GDP in the country. Many of its holiday hotels have become DSS hostels. Its retail area is full of charity shops, clearance stores or stands empty. Blackpool is supping in the last-chance saloon."

He has taken as his model Atlantic City in the US. "It's the same size, with a similar climate and history - a well-to-do resort which declined; the town in a mess, dirty, not value for money, and it too lost the political conventions. Gaming became its tool of urban regeneration. Blackpool can do the same." He is looking at 30 million visitors annually, with a £2bn spend, which would bring an extra £200m in tax for the Government. "There is no plan B. There has to be a radical solution. If we get this, it may be that Labour has done the place a favour by pulling out and shaking Blackpool out of its complacency."

If not? The answer lies silently all round his office. In the Winter Gardens coffee bar sit anoraked pensioners, eschewing the £1.25 latte for its cheaper cousin. Around them the Floral Hall, Spanish Hall and great ballroom stand empty. Back in the Victoria Bar, pairs of grey-faced OAPs slump in armless chairs, over lingering pints and port-and-lemons, staring without expression, as Enoch picks his slowhand guitar.

* Turn left at Reckless Records and we're the doorway before the bondage shop." They are not the instructions you expect to be given to find your way to Britain's leading publisher of theology. But Alex Wright takes a delight in giving them, just as he enjoyed shocking the ecclesiological establishment in his choice of a venue to launch the company's autumn list.

Normally, SCM Press chooses somewhere august and clerically magisterial for such events. But Alex Wright, who has in his mid-thirties just taken over as head of SCM, settled on Soho's Groucho Club, a place more normally associated with altogether more debauched activities.

Wright is not exactly into debauchery, but he's all for renewed contact between theology and the real world. "Most people out there don't give a toss about Christianity," he said, airily waving his fork at the people passing in front of the smart restaurant window. "For decades SCM has been concerning itself with what kind of Christianity people need. But most people now are not convinced they need any Christianity at all."

Modern theology shows no real understanding of this. It believes that mobile-phone culture, dot com millionaires and the appropriation of religious conceptuality by the National Lottery ("It Could be You") represent merely temporary aberrations in God's great plan. "What we need is a theology that takes on board the richness of secular culture," he said, knocking back the Est! Est! Est! "Christianity is not facing up to the facts. It is becoming sectarian, out of touch and antiquated - just one further life-choice amid a farrago of alternative religiosities, many of which are better attuned to upcoming generations."

So where do we find this new theology which engages seriously with the world, which understands people's fears, uncertainties, moral ambiguities and cynicism? "We find it in places such as Ridley Scott's classic film Blade Runner which offer a profoundly metaphysical approach to meaning and identity in a thoroughly secular setting." The SCM spring list should be worth waiting for.

* In a world of change some things remain unswervingly the same. I went to a planning committee meeting at the local council last week. I was there to see what happened to an application to pull down five sound Victorian houses near where I live in Sale, in south-west Manchester, and replace them with two blocks of 40 flats. Despite widespread opposition from some 400 local residents I was expecting the application to be approved. Trafford Borough Council has a pretty poor record in allowing the demolition of fine old property in favour of speculative building.

What I was not expecting was the cavalier manner with which the local councillors treated the matter. The previous item on the agenda had ended with a member of the public asking why, if decisions were made on non-political grounds, the Labour councillors all voted the same way. She was treated to a lecture on the nature of planning criteria. Yet when the next item came up the committee members themselves then demonstrated a lamentable inability to restrict themselves to planning issues.

First, they simply ignored objections about drainage problems, then they suggested that increasing the number of cars on the site from 8 to 80 would have no discernible impact on road safety near a dangerous bend, then they revealed an apparent inability to grasp the elementary distinction between the maximum and average height of a building. What they were exercised by was the view that one of the buildings, a nursing home, was "rather seedy". The judgement was first advanced - ignoring the fact that the other buildings are rather handsome - by a rotund councillor who prefaced his remarks with the Pythonesque words "when I were a lad..." Perhaps we should charitably ascribe to him a sense of humour.

There was more: the committee chairman's cosy first-name terms with the developers' agent, and the handsome cheque council funds will receive from the developers under what is known as a S106 Agreement. All perfectly legal, of course. But the contemptuous self-importance and low intellectual calibre of our elected representatives was breathtaking. Tony Blair, early in his term of office, vowed to do something about substandard Labour councils. He may have got some way in blowing the wind of change through Blackpool's Winter Gardens but clearly he has some work yet to do in Trafford.

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