The Conservative Party's Spring Conference comes to Blackpool

Blackpool has been in the wilderness as far as political party conferences are concerned.

Once one of the regular destinations for MPs across the political spectrum, it has been nearly 15 years since party members of all levels packed their bags for the Fylde coast.

Now the resort is bouncing back thanks, in part, to the government's own levelling-up agenda.

Thatcher, Prescott and Hague were amongst countless politicians to take to the podium in Blackpool

Turn the calendar back to 2007, Labour was in government with Gordon Brown as PM and Blackpool was hosting what many people feared would be its final major political conference, for the Conservative Party.

With the standard of facilities in decline, Blackpool's role in such events looked to be a thing of the past.

Newer conference centres in Liverpool and Manchester picked up the responsibilities becoming the destinations of choice in the north west.

If Blackpool wanted to compete, it needed to create a venue which could give the big cities a run for their money.

The Winter Gardens' Michael Williams outside the new Conference & Exhibition Centre

It may have taken 15 years, but Blackpool now has that venue and it's called.... the Winter Gardens.

The name will be familiar to past delegates but while three sides of the Victorian building look exactly the same, take a walk down Leopold Grove and you'll see a sparkling new glass-fronted addition.

This is the £28m new conference and exhibiton centre, one of the largest venues of its kind in the north of England.

Completed just weeks ago, it can hold 2,000 people in its conference space or can be used in conjunction with the rest of the complex to house up to 7,000.

Town leaders will be out to impress.

Cllr Lynn Williams, leader of Blackpool Council, said: "The Spring Conference represents a fantastic opportunity to showcase the state-of-the-art facilities at the new Conference & Exhibition Centre, and we’re looking forward to welcoming delegates."

Michael Williams, managing director of the Winter Gardens, added: "While the conferencing and events sector is competitive, we’re already seeing a healthy demand for the new conference centre."

The Winter Gardens is hosting Blackpool's first major political conference since 2007 Credit: ITV Granada

Blackpool was one of the first places to benefit from the government’s £3.6bn towns fund.

The resort was awarded £39.5m in October 2020, with some of the cash going on revamping the illuminations and that upgrade to the Winter Gardens.

If the town plays its cards well it will be money well spent.

The Conservative Conference alone is said to be worth £2.4m to the local economy and will throw the national spotlight back on Blackpool.

Paul Maynard MP Credit: Richard Gray/EMPICS Entertainment

Paul Maynard, the Conservative MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, has been championing the resort to host the event.

I met him outside one of the many hotels on Queen's Promenade.

"Every year we get a new party chairman and the first thing I say is 'Come back to Blackpool'.

"All the party members love Blackpool. They always say to me 'Why aren't we going back there any more?'

"If we can show we can deliver a great spring forum, maybe we can get the conference back in a future autumn period as well."

Hotelier Claire Smith has been busy preparing for delegates staying at her boutique bed & berakfast Credit: ITV Granada

It's Blackpool's hospitality which has traditionally been a major draw for these conferences.

Hoteliers have been readying rooms for an influx of visitors earlier in the year than they are used to.

In plush boutique hotel Number One St Luke's, owner Claire Smith is plumping the pillows for the delegates.

Claire is president of Stay Blackpool which represents hotels and guest houses in the resort.

"We're normally all getting the hanging baskets, winter pansies and painting the front step to make it all look a little fresher for Easter. We've pulled it forward and we're doing it for the conference."

"What does Blackpool do? It does tourism. We have a wonderful array of accommodation at every level. Not just the MPs and company people with expense accounts, it allows the general person on the street to attend the conference at an affordable level.

"That was one of the things we heard when the conferences went to the city centres, that accommodation and food was quite expensive. For a certain element of the population it just became unaffordable."

The welcome won't be entirely warm, however.

Hundreds of protestors are expected outside the Winter Gardens, trying to make their views heard on topics ranging from refugees and environmental issues to the NHS and the cost of living crisis.

Police search teams secure the area around the conference venue Credit: ITV Granada

Conservative voter Mark Butcher is pleased to see the conference back in town but he is concerned that levels of poverty are increasing.

Mark is the founder of Amazing Grace, a twice-weekly free soup kitchen restaurant and take-away which also helps people get back on their feet through work and education.

He told me that those needing food nowadays are not just homeless people.

"Tonight we'll serve lots of families, people who are in work full time, people who are on minimum zero hours contracts, who just cannot afford to pay the bills and put food in the cupboard.

"So we're not leveling up here. We're not seeing anything from government talk. We are not seeing anything here in Blackpool.

"What we are seeing is a steady decline in people's lives, in their health and their well-being and people are just getting lost more and more every day in poverty."

Volunteers at the soup kitchen have their work cut out Credit: ITV Granada

I asked Mark what he thinks needs to happen to lift people out of povery.

"The north needs to have much more investment in apprenticeships, training schemes and back-to-work programmes.

"We've realised the people we help need a purpose as well as a safe place to live."

Mark says Blackpool has always been the perfect town for political conferences.

New large-scale events which could bring vital money into the area may give hope to a town demanding a brighter future.