For many Brits, Blackpool has a special place in our hearts. The ‘Vegas of the North’ conjures fond memories of childhood holidays, big dippers and boozy weekends. Twelve million people visit the resort every year, but beyond the casinos, ghost trains and glamorous ballrooms, a brutal and transforming force has been at work, exacerbating the town’s underlying social and economic problems.
Blackpool, like so many seaside towns, is battling serious cuts to its local budgets, and after nearly a decade of austerity it is peppered with empty shops, “For Rent” signs on dilapidated properties, and people sleeping rough.
“It is almost a cliché to say you go back just a few streets from the bright lights and see all of these problems, but it really is a mixed picture,” says Gordon Marsden, the MP for Blackpool South. “The big cities like Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds have managed to come through this ten years – and I’m not saying they have had it easy – rather better than smaller towns.”
Marsden says that the idea that the prosperity of big cities can trickle down to smaller surrounding communities, a key plank of former chancellor George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ agenda, is false. “It is not the case for somewhere like Blackpool,” he says.
Lancashire was among the counties hit hardest by the era of cuts ushered in by David Cameron’s coalition government in the wake of the banking crisis, as the Government drastically scaled back public services in a bid to stabilise the economy. But now, Blackpool’s statistics speak for themselves.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW POLITICS
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements. Learn more
Blackpool Council, which serves 150,000 people, has axed almost £750m from its budget with far-reaching, devastating consequences, such as the loss of early intervention Sure Start family centres and the running-down of social care.
It has the highest proportion of deprived wards in the country and the lowest life expectancy, according to the National Office for Statistics (ONS). In one ward men are predicted to have failing health by as young as 47.
Antidepressant prescription rates here are twice the national average. The town is ranked fifth in the country for its suicide rate.
Since the financial crash in 2008, the employment rate has climbed by 2.6% but average weekly wages have fallen by 7% (from £538 to £500).
The most glaring manifestation of the economic situation, however, can be found in the town’s housing crisis. House prices in Blackpool have risen by just 3.7% since 2008 – ten times less than the national average – but the ability of local people to afford to buy them has deceased by 7%.
We are setting young people up to fail. It’s a revolving door. Jane Hugo, homelessness charity Streetlife
Blackpool’s streets are full of B&Bs, which thrived in the early era of mass British leisure, but have now been bought up at auction by private landlords and rented out to those on benefits or low income.
“What we do in Blackpool is look after people,” says Andy Mellor, headteacher at St Nicholas Church of England Primary School. “We do it so successfully that those people who need looking after tend to come to Blackpool, and we have a disproportionately high number of people who need help.
“There are people who come to Blackpool because they are running away from something or somebody, and they need some quick, cheap accommodation, and the chances are they won’t be around for long.”
The transience of Blackpool’s population, with many families moving in and out of temporary accommodation, has seen some schools record an 82% turnover of pupils.
Seven out of 10 new housing benefit claimants in the town take rooms in sub-standard accommodation, according to an analysis by the council. Around 85% arrive from outside Blackpool, from as far afield as Scotland and seaside resorts on the south coast, many with complex needs.
Parts of Blackpool, what Mellor calls “bedsit land”, also record some of the highest rates of child abuse and neglect, and some schools are spending a staggering 50% of their budget on safeguarding.
“We have to pay for people on the ground to make sure these children are in a fit state to come to school,” says Mellor.
“If the child is not being fed, we need somebody to go in there and support that family, to make sure they eat, that their clothes are washed. We need to make sure these children are not out on the streets at night and are in a fit state to come to school.”
These things are all part of a continuum. The cuts have meant that the council cannot do the outreach that it needs to in terms of social services. Gordon Marsden, Blackpool South MP
Life in the town under the current climate does not get any easier when a child leaves school. Youth homelessness has doubled.
Jane Hugo runs a small charity called The Streetlife Trust, which helps homeless young people, from a building tucked in at the end of a residential street. Demand for their services is exploding and Hugo, who is hurriedly trying to organise food donations alongside her small team ahead of an open session this evening, is exhausted.
“I’ve never seen Blackpool so busy for holidaymakers,” she says. “The town in some ways is booming but the problem comes when people who live here just have no money.”
After opening in the 1990s to tackle gambling addictions, Streetlife now gives food parcels to struggling young people, and operates a night shelter and soup kitchen.
But cuts to government funding have after 2008, both locally and nationally, have crippled the third sector in Blackpool.
They closed Streetlife’s 28-bed shelter, The Foyer, in 2014, followed by its 14-bed Bay House in 2014. But the need for Streetlife’s services is ever-increasing. “We’ve gone back not only ten years, but 20 years,” Hugo says, visibly frustrated. “Blackpool is always in the wrong top tens.”
Marsden says the prevalence of landlords rather than homeowners means properties are not always well looked-after. “Because of the economically-depressed state in parts of the town, homes haven’t been bought up by first-time buyers, they have been bought up by landlords and this has perpetuated this chain of people being put in there on the back of housing benefit,” he says.
“I’m not saying all these landlords are bad but a lot of them do not have a particular incentive to ensure the upkeep of the property while they continue to get that money.”
Housing problems and low incomes create other predictable knock-on problems. It has the highest rate of deaths from heroin overdose in the country and almost double that of the town with second highest, Burnley. In common with towns and cities across the country the use of the drug Spice is noticeable.
“When people are desperate, Spice is cheap as anything, about a fiver,” says Hugo. “It is very, very dangerous. They zombie out. They look like they are asleep, leaning and flopping.” Hugo says that once they have helped a young person, the charity has nowhere but private accommodation to move them on to.
“This year and last year there have been significant periods where we have been turning young people away because we are full, and previously that would have been very rare,” says Hugo.
“We are setting young people up to fail. It’s a revolving door. We get young people into flats but they end up getting evicted and come back to our door.”
Blackpool remains a hive of small business, and local initiatives like Lancashire Community Finance and Blackpool Pride of Place are working hard to maintain the town’s vibrancy. But since 2008, the business stock of the town has fallen by 5%, with job cuts in the public sector having the knock-on effect of people spending less outside of the tourist season.
“Small businesses have historically been the lifeblood of Blackpool – even the Pleasure Beach was once a small business – and again it is not all bad, we have a lot of success stories,” says Marsden.
Blackpool’s health services have also topped national league-tables for the wrong reasons. In December, Blackpool Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust recorded the country’s worst A&E waiting times, with just 40% of patients seen within four hours.
“These things are all part of a continuum,” says Marsden. “The cuts have meant that the council cannot do the outreach that it needs to in terms of social services.
“That means that a lot of people who turn up in Blackpool A&E or acute crisis, are there because some of the basic needs have not been addressed at an early enough stage, consequently they are much more ill than they might have been.”
In that, Blackpool’s situation mirrors that in other parts of the country, as local cuts impact on other services, sometimes in complicated ways.
“Many of the issues we have – the transience, the housing crisis – pre-date 2008, but none of them are addressed in government funding formulae,” says Marsden. “The hospital does not get any more money by virtue of the fact it has to take in those people, for example, nor do children’s services when families with complex backgrounds move into the town.”
A growing number of people are beginning to wonder whether a devolution settlement for Lancashire is the answer. “The way you need to engage with seaside towns is very different,” says Marsden. He rails against the suggestion that Blackpool’s decline is inevitable, as does Mellor.
“I go to the illuminations every year,” says Mellor. “You look left on the promenade and you see a beautiful sunset, golden sands, and what are now some of the best beaches in Europe. But then I look right and you see that this town just needs so much investment.”