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How the Tories almost do make Blackpool envy Manston

Scott Benton, Conservative MP for Blackpool South, said his constituents could “only dream” of being as “well-cared” for as detained asylum seekers. Have 12 years of Tory rule left his town that destitute? We went to find out. 

November 12 2022, 06.35am

“We really need your help. Please help us,” read a letter thrown over the fence at Manston immigrant detention centre last week. Following a terrorist attack on another centre in Dover the week prior, 700 people were transferred to the Kent facility, which was already over capacity. The letter told of disabled children and pregnant women not accessing the care they needed. “We are in a difficult life now,” the letter went on. “We [feel] like we’re in prison.”

In response, Scott Benton, the Conservative MP for Blackpool South, said his constituents refuted the idea that migrants were being mistreated at Manston, adding that they could “only dream” of receiving the same sort of treatment. While this statement was – obviously – bogus, the fact an MP could make such a claim begs the question: what on earth is going on in Blackpool South?

The Blackpool South constituency encompasses a part of the country that many in the North West will relate to childhood nostalgia. The famous Pepsi Max Big One, the highlight of Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach theme park, reaches out into the windy sky, towering over the beach like a beacon of hope. The Blackpool Tower stands proud in the centre of the town, already lit up by its famous Christmas illuminations. In the collective memory, Blackpool has an almost hazy glow: a time capsule of family holidays, sandcastles, chippy teas and Christmas cheer. 

Yet, while Blackpool South remains, as of the time of writing, a better place to live than an overcrowded asylum centre, after 12 years of Conservative rule it has, in fact, become one of the most deprived areas in Britain. In 2019, Blackpool was ranked the most deprived out of 317 districts in England, inching its way down the ranking from 4th place in 2015, and is home to eight out of 10 of the country’s most deprived neighbourhoods. Blackpool South itself is the most deprived Tory constituency in England – the ‘red wall’ seat was lost to the Tories in the 2019 General Election – and is ranked 17th most deprived out of more than 500 parliamentary constituencies.

How did it come to this?  To start with, the Labour-led council estimates it has lost £1.4 billion of funding in the past decade (official figures show cuts of £20 million since 2015). On top of that, although Blackpool voted overwhelmingly for Brexit in 2016, the town was the recipient of a healthy amount of EU regional development funding. Its replacement, the Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF), doesn’t measure up: it gives combined authorities an estimated average of 43.3 percent less funding than before. 

That Blackpool is a seaside town also comes into play. A 2021 report found that seaside towns have some of the worst healthcare outcomes in the country – and Blackpool has the lowest life expectancy for both men and women anywhere in the UK. Around a third of people in Blackpool die before the age of 75, and many spend a smaller proportion of their lifespan in good health and without disability, compared to the national average. This, says Gordon Marsden, the ex-Labour MP for Blackpool South, is partly thanks to an ageing population. “A lot of people retire here and, sadly, they sometimes develop conditions,” he tells The Lead. “If they don’t have supportive family and neighbours there, this exacerbates the need for social care.” Cuts to care during the first wave of austerity haven’t helped. “Year after year, the government cut money from the council's budget,” says Marsden, “so the councils couldn’t keep up with that process.” 

Young people don’t fare much better: according to the 2021 report, there is a significantly higher proportion of deaths in much younger age groups from causes such as suicide, drugs and alcohol. The town also has higher rates of teenage pregnancy, though figures have been dropping fairly consistently over the past decade. It has the highest rate of alcohol-harm related hospital admissions in the country and the highest rate of drug deaths, all of which have a knock-on effect on the town’s health service. 

Food and fuel poverty are also endemic. Even before the national energy crisis, in 2020, some 17 percent of Blackpool households were estimated to be in fuel poverty – the highest percentage of fuel-poor households in Lancashire. Figures from the Trussell Trust’s mid-year report, released Friday, found that the number of food parcels delivered across the Fylde Coast jumped from 1,698 last year’s third quarter to 2,872 in 2022. The report showed a 100 percent increase in demand for food parcels since 2017.

Bev Lucas is the CEO of Blackpool Foodbanks, a charity that distributes food parcels to over 80 local services in Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre. While demand for food parcels dropped when lockdowns ended, she says, “it’s still higher than what it was pre-Covid. It never balanced out.” Between January and October this year, the charity has seen an increase in demand for crisis parcels of 40 percent for single people and 25 percent for families. But this demand increase hasn’t been met by donations: “We're having to make the food stretch further,” she says. 

While the pandemic and cost of living crisis are key factors in the fuel and food poverty facing Blackpool residents, its enviable location proves its downfall here, too: insecure, seasonal work characterises many seaside towns. In 2021, 43.1 percent of jobs in Blackpool were part-time, and the average weekly wage for residents was £445 – 30 percent less than the national average. “I think we're seeing people who are working but just can't manage,” says Lucas. “Some people might have two, three jobs, but they still might need that extra food support.” In Blackpool, the rate of people who were on benefits in February 2022, both in and out of work, was the highest in the country

Walking along the seafront in November, you’ll notice a number of businesses have closed shop for the winter months. Blackpool is heavily reliant on tourists, and Covid had a drastic impact on the sector, which made an estimated £1.61 million in 2020, down from £4.41 billion in 2018. This year saw some recovery, with the sector drawing in more than double the number of tourists and revenue, but there’s still some way to go. 

Luke, 18, works at Blackpool Rock, a sweet shop just down the promenade from the North Pier. He’s worked there since he finished school, and is one of the few employees that works full time. “In summer, we’re mostly seeing tourists,” he tells The Lead. “But this time of the year it's more locals coming up to see the Illuminations.” He says the council has decided to keep the Christmas lights on until January this year in order to attract more tourists during the festive season. It’s the third consecutive year that the illuminations are being kept on beyond their usual 66 days. 

Blackpool is also home to many Airbnbs, holiday lets and hotels, many of which are vacant. Previously, tax deductions for buy-to-let properties made Blackpool very attractive for prospective landlords. “The centre of the town is very concentrated [with such properties],” says Marsden. “Houses were snapped up by absentee landlords and now those streets are in disrepair”. 

Levelling up? “A sticking plaster” 

Homelessness is also on the rise. Chris Conway, who founded homeless charity United Blackpool in 2018, tells The Lead that while the council is “doing its best,” it has become heavily reliant on third sector organisations to tackle homelessness in the town. He says that nightly street counts find there are an average of 40 people sleeping rough in Blackpool each night. The main problem, he says, is that many people come to Blackpool to start a new life, often to find that they’re in the same position, if not worse. 

“What we find is people gravitate to the town, because they have historically happy childhood memories of the illuminations or the seafront,” Chris Webb, Chair of Trustees for the local mental health charity Counselling in the Community, tells The Lead. “It's a cheap place to live and eat, so they feel that Blackpool will solve their problems but, unfortunately, those problems are brought with them, and an area that is so deprived already has a massive strain on local services [can’t cope].” 

This means, says Conway, that people are often left on the street with nowhere to go. “These people are fleeing domestic violence or other issues where they're from, so they have no choice but to stay and the only way they can stay is on the streets.” Mental health and addiction issues are also a key factor. Working alongside homeless charities, Webb has found that, even when people are able to access accommodation, they often don’t stay. “They have underlying drug, alcohol and mental health issues, which then forces them back onto the street, either for finances or because their addiction has not been dealt with,” he says. 

Mental ill-health is a problem within the wider community, too. In 2018/19, Blackpool saw over 500 hospital admissions for intentional self-harm and the town has the second highest male suicide rate in the country. Webb says that the “deprivation” that the majority of residents in Blackpool experience is the root cause. 

For Marsden, this deprivation is the direct result of austerity. While Marsden says there are “some positives,” in that Blackpool is ripe for opportunity when it comes to Net Zero jobs, he adds that things are still difficult. “Some of that is because of world conditions, but much of it can be, in my view, placed straight at the door of  Tory administrations we've had since 2010.”

This week, the town received its first round of ‘levelling up funding’ – £40 million, to be spent on demolishing the magistrate’s court and disused police station in order to build three new indoor amusement parks in the town centre.  While the funding is, of course, welcomed by residents, it’s a wonder whether it will “trickle down.” Marsden says the funding should have come “much sooner,” while Webb sees it as nothing more than a sticking plaster. They want us to be grateful for crumbs,” he says. 

But Blackpool residents are resilient. Luke has never looked back since moving to the town in 2015 and both Webb and Lucas speak extremely highly of Blackpool’s unique community spirit. “If it wasn't for that community spirit, Blackpool would be in a much worse position,” says Webb. He says there’s “definitely an appetite” for helping others. “Blackpool’s spirit won’t be broken,” he says. “And I think that's what's keeping Blackpool alive.”