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How Blackpool became a “dumping ground” for the socially excluded

Beyond the fun of Blackpool Tower and Pleasure Beach is one of England's most deprived communities.

Photo: Felix Clay/Eyevine/Redux

By late autumn, only the shop signs along Blackpool’s tired seafront are defiantly cheerful, with their promises of “family amusements” and “happy dayz” of discount rock and cheap cabaret. Every year on 10 November, Blackpool’s nightly illuminations are switched off, marking the end of the holiday season, and around 2,500 people become unemployed overnight. Cheap air travel has been slowly killing the local tourism trade for decades but no one has come up with an alternative to halt the town’s decline. 

Two hundred metres inland from the promenade, pebble-dash terraces that were once guest houses and B&Bs have been converted into bedsits renting for around £65 a week and attracting a new kind of visitor. Blackpool has become a town where “you can turn up with a bin bag and £150, and you can get a flat,” says Simon Blackburn, leader of Blackpool Council. 

We meet in his office in Bay House, a shelter for homeless young people at the end of a street full of run-down bedsits. Here in South Shore, a two-bedroom house is currently on sale for £40,000. Low property prices and fond memories of childhood holidays do attract newcomers, but, says Blackburn, “one of the main reasons someone comes here is because something’s gone wrong in their life”. He describes how he himself turned up in Blackpool well over a decade ago with just a sports bag and £170. 

He was lucky. He first found a job working on Blackpool Pleasure Beach and a year later enrolled at the University of Central Lancashire, before eventually training as a social worker. As well as heading up Blackpool Council, he manages the Bay House shelter. “I earn 50k and that makes me a Blackpool millionaire,” he says, as Bentley, his eightweek-old puppy, attacks my shoelaces. 

In a report released earlier this year, the Centre for Social Justice described British seaside towns such as Blackpool as “dumping grounds for people facing problems such as unemployment, social exclusion and substance abuse”. Few new arrivals can expect to find a job and the town’s cheap rental market makes it easy for residents to slip between the cracks of public health and child protection programmes. 

“When the social worker or school nurse comes, or the health visitor starts being persistent and begins wanting to see your child, you can move a few streets away, with another 150 quid and another bin bag, and get another flat, and then another. We end up chasing people,” Blackburn tells me. He says he wanted to meet at Bay House, rather than in the rather grand town hall, so that I can see at first hand the social problems this is creating. He leads me out of his office to meet some of the hostel’s residents.

“Everyone who comes here, all they see is the prom but as soon as you come one street in, you see this,” says Hayden gesturing vaguely at Bay House’s common room and the deserted street outside. Hayden, who is 18, moved into the shelter a year ago after his father tried to kill him. His parents had moved to Blackpool from Birmingham several years earlier to evade child protection officers who wanted to place him in care. 

Hayden’s fiancée, Clare, whom he met at Bay House, also arrived at the shelter after fleeing violence at home. Together, they are trying to rebuild their lives but it’s a permanent struggle. Clare’s benefits have been cut because of a bureaucratic slip-up at her local further education college; they are living off a joint budget of £58 a week while they grapple with the paperwork. Both are enrolled in education and hoping for work but if they accept a job at minimum wage, with limited hours – the best they can wish for – their housing benefit will be cut and they will have to leave Bay House. “You just want to curl up in a ball and cry, because you feel like you’re in a never-ending circle,” Clare says. 

Even harder than the daily grind of poverty is the everyday violence. “After 8pm, I don’t even dare walk to the end of the road,” Clare says. A few weeks ago she was held at knifepoint after men broke into her bedroom. On another occasion, a friend came into her room threatening to slit his girlfriend’s throat. “We thought he was just high and taking the mick, but we found out two weeks’ later that he actually did it.” One of the residents of Bay House was murdered at the end of the street last year and, five minutes’ walk away, Clare’s childhood friend Sasha Marsden was stabbed 58 times and set on fire in January 2013 by a local barman, David Minto. Minto had arranged a meeting with Sasha under the false pretence of offering her part-time work. In July he was sentenced to a minimum of 35 years in jail.

When I ask Hayden how often he’s felt that his life was at risk, he splutters at the stupidity of the question. “I honestly can’t answer that. You know if you’re someone who’s from a nice home and everything, and you are like, ‘Oh this happened once’ or ‘These two situations’? For me, every single day there’s the potential of me losing my life.”  

Rates of violent crime, sexual assault and domestic violence in Blackpool exceed national averages, in part because of the high rates of drug and alcohol abuse in the city: Blackpool has the highest number of alcohol-related deaths and the second highest incidence of opiate and crack cocaine use in Britain. Hayden and Clare’s parents were addicted to drugs, which Clare believes is a symptom of the lack of work or hope that affects Blackpool’s most deprived communities. She says her mother’s neighbours “are all involved in drink and drugs. Because they are on benefits and don’t have anything else to do all day.” 

Substance abuse and high rates of mental illness – Blackpool has the country’s highest male suicide rate – have in turn contributed to the worst levels of family breakdown in the country. One in 67 children in Blackpool is in care, the highest in England. 

Blackpool Council is trying to tackle these urgent welfare needs while also aggressively having to cut its budget. By the next election, its budget will be half what it was in 2009/10. “The one and only advantage of what the government is doing to us, which quite frankly is fucking us over, is that they are not being prescriptive,” Blackburn says. His council is taking advantage of this freedom with a bold change of tack. It is calculating that overhauling Blackpool’s housing stock will have a knock-on effect on individual wellbeing, public health, unemployment and anti-social behaviour – in Blackburn’s words, “You have to drain the swamp within which the problem exists” – and so the council is focusing its limited resources on property.

The five council-run tower blocks in the deprived Queen’s Park estate are being pulled down – two have been demolished this year – and will be replaced by 198 family homes and apartments in low-rise buildings. Across Blackpool, council housing is being repurposed so that one-bed flats are converted to family properties. And, in March 2012, a selective licensing scheme came into effect in the South Shore area. Under the scheme, all landlords in the area have to apply for a licence, which costs £670 per house, flat or bedsit, with additional fees applied to houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) – usually ex-guest houses converted into five or more bedsits. Licensed landlords all have to agree to certain standards on property management. The scheme is self-financing. Proceeds from licences are used to fund a housing enforcement team and a transience team, who can refer tenants on to social services and public health providers.

Councillor Gillian Campbell is responsible for the selective licensing scheme and often accompanies housing enforcement officers on their visits. “Some of the places we’ve come across have been absolutely awful. You wouldn’t let a rat live in them. It’s been disgusting and quite heartbreaking as well, because some people are used to it, they don’t think they deserve better,” she tells me. Some of the houses she’s visited have had no heating or warm water, or indeed no plumbing or water at all. The team has seen collapsed ceilings, dangerous damp, exposed wiring and people living with dead and decomposing animals. 

At one point, after carefully checking whether I’ve eaten, Campbell whips out a photo of a corner bath filled to the rim with urine, faeces and loo roll. She tells me that a week ago she visited a flat where an elderly man had for years been using a cupboard in the hall as a toilet. Although the council is paying for a carer, no carer has been visiting him. However, the landlady does come each week to collect the rent, despite a smell so strong “it hurts your eyes”. Campbell says that when she confronted her, the landlady argued that “it’s up to him how he chooses to live”. 

Some landlords are “making their money off human suffering and misery, and we won’t tolerate that any longer”, says Campbell, who at points in our conversation appears close to tears. Having herself struggled with mental health problems as a single mother living in a noisy, dangerous Edinburgh tower block, she says she’s painfully aware of how bad housing can affect people. She’s optimistic, however, that the scheme, which now covers 1,800 properties, is making a difference: “The residents are happy, the businesses are happy, the place feels almost cleaner and a bit brighter.” 

But not everyone is convinced by the benefits of selective licensing, not least private landlords. Paul Bander is a board member of the Fylde Coast Landlords Forum, and owns a dozen properties in Blackpool. He says that forcing landlords to pay for licences is “heavy handed” and a “fee-grabbing exercise” for the council (the council insists that all of the money raised is recycled back into the scheme). “The vast majority of landlords are nice, law-abiding citizens; we pay our taxes and we provide a very useful social need because the public sector doesn’t provide enough housing,” he adds. He argues it’s not landlords’ fault when their tenants trash their properties. “The council loves blaming landlords, when the reality is they haven’t invested in Blackpool for the past 10-15 years,” he says. Both parties would agree that the relationship between landlords and the council is strained at best. 

At Streetlife, a homeless shelter providing emergency short-term accommodation to young people, its chief executive Jane Hugo also voices concerns about the council. By demolishing one-bedroom flats in high-rises and clamping down on dishevelled bedsits, the council is reducing the amount of housing available to young people. Under-35s receive a lower level of housing benefit, and are more likely to be living on their own, so they cannot afford higher-quality properties. She believes that cracking down on sub-standard rental properties is a good thing, but alternative accommodation for young people forced to rent at the bottom of the market isn’t being found fast enough.

At the same time, an amendment to council rules is creating extra pressures for young people in desperate need of accommodation. Since September, those seeking to access housing services have to prove that they have lived in the city for at least three years. For young people who have spent time sleeping on friends’ sofas, or moving from flat to flat and working cash in hand, providing the necessary evidence can be difficult. And while young people are trying to gather the paperwork they need, Streetlife is not allowed to house them. Unless the council changes its rules, Streetlife will no longer be financially viable: Hugo says her charity needs 75 per cent occupancy to survive but since September they have struggled to fill half the beds each night. 

At Streetlife I meet Connor, a 24-year-old who had dropped in to the centre for some subsidised egg on toast. He had been sleeping on a friend’s sofa for the past few nights but a week earlier he’d slept on the pavement just outside the homeless shelter, knowing there were empty beds inside. “I curled up in a ball under a blanket. I even put my head underneath, just to stay warm,” he says. 

Connor was placed in care in Blackpool when he was 12, and stayed there until he was 18. Six years ago, he moved in with his girlfriend in Thornton, a few miles from Blackpool. In the past four months, his mother died, his girlfriend suffered a miscarriage and then they split up. He is heartbroken – “She was my soulmate,” he says – but his more immediate concern is whether he’ll have to sleep rough again tonight. When I leave him he’s preparing to call up the council to see if they’ve come to any decision about his case or if he’ll sleep out in the cold. “We support the idea of a local connection, we can’t help everybody, but we would prefer it if people are treated with a little bit more dignity and compassion,” says Hugo, who is now lobbying for the council to change its laws. “The doors are being slammed everywhere young people turn.” 

Even if Blackpool is able to regenerate its housing stock and if this leads to improvements in the city’s poor health and high levels of social breakdown, this will take years to make a difference. For young people, hardest hit by Blackpool’s social and economic decline, this is little consolation. 

“A lot of this is about hope . . . Kids in here [Bay House], how do you tell them not to smoke, or to get up and go to college?” says Simon Blackburn at one point during our conversation. He says it’s difficult to keep them optimistic about the future when the best they can hope for is “a seasonal job in McDonald’s or on the Pleasure Beach”. It’s also about young people’s horizons; and their sense of belonging to their town when they are socially and economically excluded. Blackburn tells the story of how this summer, some of the women at Bay House had laid out towels in the grit and the oil outside the neighbouring garage to sunbathe. He had to persuade them to walk the few hundred metres to sunbathe on the beach – the possibility hadn’t occurred to them. 

Hayden and Clare are teenagers yet they sound resigned to being part of a lost generation; their ambitions are centred on bringing up children with better life chances than they ever had. Once they have completed their movingly modest “five-step plan”, which culminates in buying a flat, Clare wants to become a mother and foster parent, to help children like themselves who “never got any love or attention”. 

“I want to give them a good life, where they have clothes and don’t have to worry about when they will be fed, and I want to help them with their homework or if they want to go to university,” she says. And for her, that means one thing. “I want out of Blackpool.”

Sophie McBain is a New Statesman staff writer. Some names have been changed to protect identities.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

NEAL FOX FOR NEW STATESMAN
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They know where you live

Imagine your house being raided by armed police. That’s what happened to Mumsnet’s Justine Roberts after she fell victim to an internet hoaxer.

At around midnight on Tuesday 11 August 2015, a man dialled 999 to report a murder. A woman had been killed in her London home, he said, before hanging up without offering his name. A second call followed. This time, the man claimed to be the killer. He told the operator that he had now taken the woman’s children hostage at the Islington address. They were locked with him inside a room in the house, he said. The police responded with reassuring speed. Fifteen minutes later, eight officers, five of them armed with automatic weapons, accompanied by saliva-flecked dogs, arrived at the scene and took up position in neighbouring front gardens. When one officer banged on the front door of the house, the team was greeted, moments later, not by a masked murderer but by a blinking and bewildered au pair.

Justine Roberts, the woman whom the caller claimed to have killed, was in fact nearly 2,000 kilometres away – in Italy, holidaying with her husband and children. After explaining this to the police, the au pair called Roberts, who assumed that the incident was an unfortunate misunderstanding, one that could be unpicked after the vacation. It was no mistake. Roberts had been the victim of “swatting”, the term given to a false emergency call designed to bait an armed unit of police officers to storm someone’s home. It wasn’t until a few days later, as the family was preparing to return to London, that Roberts discovered that she had been the target of a planned and sustained attack, not only on her household, but also on her business.

Roberts is the founder of Mumsnet, the popular British internet discussion forum on which parents share advice and information. A few days before the swatting incident, members of 8chan, a chat room that prides itself on being an open, anonymous platform for free speech, no matter how distasteful, had registered accounts on Mums­net with the aim of trolling people there. When legitimate Mumsnet users identified and then ridiculed the trolls, some retreated to 8chan to plot more serious vengeance in a thread that the police later discovered. Roberts wasn’t involved in the online skirmish but, as the public face of the site, she was chosen as the first target.

After the initial armed response, Roberts’s perception was that the police were unconcerned about the swatting attack. “We were told that there was no victim, so there was not much that could be done,” she told me. The hoax caller, however, was not finished. In the days after the incident, there was chatter on Mumsnet and Twitter about what had happened. A Mumsnet user whom I will call Jo Scott – she requested anonymity for her own safety – exchanged heated messages with a hacker who claimed responsibility for the 999 call.

“It descended into jokes and silliness, like many things do,” Scott said. “I didn’t take it seriously when the hacker said he had big surprises in store.” She doesn’t believe that what happened next was personal. “I think I was just easy to find.”

A few days after police were called to Roberts’s home, Scott was in her bedroom while her husband was sitting downstairs playing video games. At 11pm, she heard a noise outside. “I looked out of the window and saw blue flashing lights in the street,” she recalled. “I could hear shouting but I didn’t pay it much notice.” Then she heard her husband open the front door. Police rushed into the house. An armed officer shouted upstairs, asking Scott if she was hurt. When she replied that she was fine, he told her to fetch her two young children: he needed to see them. Scott shook her sons awake, explaining, so as not to alarm them, that the police had come to show the boys their cars. As the three of them went downstairs, the officers swept up through the house, repeatedly asking if there were any weapons on the property.

“I was beyond confused by this point,” Scott said. “Everyone was carrying a gun. They had little cutaway bits so you could see the bullets. My eldest asked one of the officers if he could have a go on his gun and went to touch it.”

As Scott sat with an officer downstairs, she asked what had happened to her husband. “I later found out that the noises I’d heard were the police calling for him to come outside,” she said. “He dropped the PlayStation controller as he left the room. It was only later that we realised it’s a good job he did: in the dark, the controller might have looked like a weapon.”

Outside, Scott’s husband had been surrounded and arrested. Other police ­officers were on the lookout in the front gardens of nearby properties, having warned the couple’s neighbours to stay indoors, away from their windows. “One of the officers said it was beginning to look like a hoax,” Scott said. “Then he mentioned swatting. As soon as he said that word, I twigged that I’d seen the term that day on Twitter in relation to the Mumsnet hack.”

***

The term “swatting” has been used by the FBI since 2008. “Swat” is an acronym of “Special Weapons and Tactics”, the American police squads routinely called to intervene in hostage situations. It is, in a sense, a weaponised version of a phoney order of pizza, delivered as a prank to a friend’s home, albeit one that carries the possibility of grave injury at the hands of police. For perpetrators, the appeal is the ease with which the hoax can be set in motion and the severity of the results. With a single, possibly untraceable phone call, dialled from anywhere in the world, it is possible to send an armed unit to any address, be it the home of a high-profile actor whom you want to prank or that of someone you want to scare.

In America, where swatting originated, the practice has become so widespread – targets have included Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Clint Eastwood and the Californian congressman Ted Lieu – that it is now classed as an act of domestic terrorism. In the UK, where Justine Roberts’s was one of the first recorded cases, swatting is classed as harassment, though that may change if these and other forms of internet vigilante attacks, such as doxxing, become increasingly commonplace.

Doxxing involves the publication of someone’s personal details – usually their home address, phone numbers, bank details and, in some cases, email address – on the internet. It is often the prelude to swatting: after all, the perpetrator of a hoax cannot direct the police to the target’s home address until this is known. (During the week of the Mumsnet attacks, one of the perpetrators attempted to locate another target using their computer’s IP address, which can identify where a person is connected to the internet, often with alarming precision. Their calculation, however, was slightly out; police were called to a neighbour’s address.)

Though doxxing has a less dramatic outcome than swatting, the psychological effects can be just as severe. For victims – usually people who are active on the internet and who have outspoken opinions or who, in the eyes of an internet mob, have committed some kind of transgression – the mere threat of having their personal information made available on the web can cause lasting trauma. A Canadian software developer whose home address, bank details, social security number and email history were published online in 2014 told me that he now keeps an axe by his front door. “I still don’t feel safe here,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”

Christos Reid, a social media manager for a software company, was doxxed last year. Reid’s information came from a website he had registered seven years earlier. “I woke up one morning to find a tweet announcing my personal details,” he told me. When he asked the Twitter account holder to take down the address, he was told to commit suicide. Reid said he was “OK for about half an hour”; but then, after he went out, he broke down in the street. “I’ve become more paranoid,” he said. He no longer gives out business cards with personal information.

Reid lives in London, but at the time of the doxx he was attending an event in Nottingham, home to the British police’s largest cybercrime division. He was impressed with the police response, even though they told him that they had not heard of the term “doxxing” before. “I was interviewed by two separate people about my experiences who then compiled everything into a case file and transferred it to the Met. When I arrived home, an officer visited me to discuss what happened and my options.”

The policeman explained harassment law to Reid, and offered advice on how to improve security at his flat and what to do if someone hostile turned up at the address. Reid shouldered the repercussions of what had happened alone; no suspects were identified. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police similarly said that although detectives from Islington CID have investigated the swatting attacks made on Roberts and Scott, no suspects have been identified “at this time”, even as “inquiries continue”.

Doxxing may seem to be a mild form of harassment but it carries with it an implicit threat of impending violence; the worrying message is: “We know where you live.” Unlike swatting, which is always malicious, doxxing is sometimes viewed by its perpetrators as virtuous. In November 2014, hackers claiming to be aligned with the internet group Anonymous published personal information allegedly belonging to a Ku Klux Klan member from Missouri. The hackers said that their action was a response to the KKK’s threat to use lethal force against demonstrators in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, protesting against the killing of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. In January 2015 hackers claiming to be from Isis took over US Central Command’s Twitter account and posted information about senior military officers, including phone numbers and email addresses. In each case, those carrying out the doxxing believed, however mistakenly, in the virtue of their actions and hoped that the information could be used to bring punishment or ruin to the subject.

The term “doxxing” may be new but the practice is an old one. The Hollywood blacklist revealed the political beliefs and associations of actors and directors in the late 1940s as a way to invite shame, deny employment and dissuade others from following their example. “But it has become a lot easier to find people’s private details with the help of the internet,” Jeroen Vader told me. Vader owns Pastebin, a website that allows users to upload and distribute text documents, and where much of the personal data is anonymously uploaded and shared. “People post their private information on social networks,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t aware that their information is so easily available to others.”

In Justine Roberts’s case, the perpetrator may not even have needed to look at social networks to mine her personal information. “If you’re on the electoral roll, you’re easy to find,” she said. “There’s not much you can do to stop people getting hold of your data one way or another, whether it’s for nefarious reasons or simply to better advertise to you. We live in a world that is constantly trying to gather more information about us.”

Jeroen Vader said he has noticed an “upward trend” in the number of doxxing posts uploaded to Pastebin in recent months, but insisted that when someone uses the site’s abuse report system these offending posts are removed immediately.

Across social media companies, action is more often reactive than proactive. Victoria Taylor, a former director at Reddit, one of the largest community-driven websites in the world, said that the rule against publishing other users’ personal information has been “consistently one of the site’s most basic policies” and that “any violation of this rule is taken extremely seriously by the team and community”. Still, she was only able to recommend that victims of doxxing send a message to the site’s administrators. Similarly, when asked what a person can do to remove personal details that have been published without permission, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Use our help form.”

The spokesperson added: “There has def­initely been an overall increase in doxxing since 2006, both on Twitter and on the internet more generally.” She attributed this rise to the emergence of search engines such as Intelius and Spokeo, services designed to locate personal information.

***

The surge in the number of dox­xing and swatting attacks is in part a result of the current lack of legal protection for victims. Confusion regarding the law on doxxing is pervasive; the term is even not mentioned in either US or European law. In a tutorial posted on Facebook in 2013, the writer claims: “Doxxing isn’t illegal as all the information you have obtained is public,” and adds: “But posting of the doxx might get you in a little trouble.”

Phil Lee, a partner in the privacy, security and information department of Fieldfisher based at the law firm’s office in Silicon Valley, said that differing privacy laws around the world were part of the problem. “Various countries have laws that cover illegal or unauthorised obtaining of data. Likewise, some of the consequences of releasing that data, such as defamation or stalking, cover elements of what we now term doxxing. But there is no global law covering what is a global phenomenon.” Indeed, Roberts believes that her London address was targeted from America – the 999 call was routed through a US proxy number.

One challenge to creating a law on doxxing is that the sharing of personal information without permission has already become so widespread in the digital age. “If a law was to state something like, ‘You must not post personal information about another person online without their consent,’ it wouldn’t reflect how people use the internet,” Lee said. “People post information about what their friends and family members have been doing all the time without their consent.

“Such a law could have a potentially detrimental effect on freedom of speech.”

Lee believes that a specific law is unnecessary, because its potentially harmful effects are already covered by three discrete pieces of legislation dealing with instances where a person’s private information is obtained illegally, when that information is used to carry out illegal acts and when the publication of the information is accompanied by a threat to incite hatred. However, this does not adequately account for cases in which the information is obtained legally, and then used to harass the individual in a more legally ambiguous manner, either with prank phone calls or with uninvited orders of pizza.

Susan Basko, an independent lawyer who practises in California and who has been doxxed in the course of her frequent clashes with internet trolls, believes that the onus should be on the law, rather than the public. She points out that in the US it is a crime to publicise information about a government employee such as their home address, their home and cellphone numbers, or their social security number, even if the information is already online. “This law should apply to protect all people, not just federal employees,” she said. “And websites, website-hosting companies and other ISPs should be required to uphold this law.”

Basko said that doxxing will continue to increase while police have inadequate resources to follow up cases. For now, it is up to individuals to take preventative measures. Zoë Quinn, an American game designer and public speaker who was doxxed in 2014, has launched Crash Override, a support network and assistance group for targets of online harassment, “composed entirely of experienced survivors”.

Quinn, who spoke about the problem at a congressional hearing in Washington, DC in April last year, recently posted a guide on how to reduce the likelihood of being doxxed. “If you are worried you might some day be targeted,” she wrote, “consider taking an evening to stalk yourself online, deleting and opting out of anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Both Scott and Roberts have changed their privacy habits following the attacks. Scott is more careful about interacting with strangers online, while Roberts uses scrambler software, which ensures that she never uses the same password for more than one online site or service.

For both women’s families, the effects of their encounters with armed police have also lingered. When one day recently Roberts’s husband returned home early from work, the au pair called the police, believing it was an intruder. And Scott is haunted by what happened.

“What if my husband had made a sudden move or resisted in some way? What if my eldest had grabbed the gun instead of gently reaching for it? What if people locally believed that my husband did actually have guns in the house?” she asks. “I don’t think the people making these sorts of hoax calls realise the impact.” 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism