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7 December 2015

Inside Blackpool’s attempts to regenerate itself

The town of Blackpool has been brought low by the rise of cheap flights - can regeneration efforts turn the tide?

By morgan meaker

Looking across the McDonald’s car-park is a row of candy-coloured houses. The home of the Big Mac acts as a welcome mat to Foxhall Village, an ambitious new development set in Blackpool’s most deprived area; the second most deprived in England. 

Despite its location, Rik Faircloth, the development manager of Hollinwood, the company developing the site, believes these 400 new homes will be the catalyst for change in Blackpool.

This year the government unveiled its latest list of England’s most deprived areas, based on statistics for employment, income, health, crime, living standards and disability. Blackpool was home to three of England’s top-five most deprived places. But unlike London or Liverpool, where the cities’ poorest pockets are on the outskirts, Blackpool’s are in the centre of town.

The major challenge for the Foxhall development is to change local perceptions of the area. The streets encircling the development’s shining marketing suite are blighted by crime. Online, Blackpool residents scoff at the idea the neighbourhood can be changed. On the comment board of the Blackpool Gazette, one person writes: “I will believe that when I see it.”  

Just footsteps away from the baby-blue, green and pink frontages of Foxhall Village, small-grey speakers sing out the bingo numbers into the street; Blackpool’s call to prayer. “White 57. Red two. Red one,” reads the monotonous voice. The noise rings out across rows and rows of tightly packed, old hotels. Central Blackpool is still suffering from a decline in the town’s tourist trade. 

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Residents here remember a time before cheap flights, when there was never an empty room in the endless streets of guest houses – in the 60s and 70s. In the face of dwindling visitors some hotels have resigned themselves to decay. The Brooklyn guest house is one. It looks as if it’s been ravaged by war: the ceilings have collapsed and its red awning has been torn apart by savage North West winds. 

But over 3,000 struggling guesthouses have opted to convert into HMOs – houses in multiple occupation – where hotel rooms become cheap bedsits. HMO landlords target people on housing benefit, that way they know they’ll get paid. 80 per cent of private rented properties in Blackpool are occupied by people on benefits, compared to just 30 per cent nationally.

This is where many believe Blackpool’s social breakdown begins: the huge amount of low-cost accommodation has bought people to the town from all over the country, often bringing problems of unemployment, addiction or anti-social behaviour with them.

“People with problems gravitate to here,” says Faircloth. “Blackpool spends money fixing them but they leave the area once they’re on their feet because there’s not enough quality housing. If they stay, then they can contribute back to Blackpool.”

Foxhall Village was a scheme championed by Steve Matthews, the council’s former director of housing. “Nobody wakes up with the aspirations to live in a bedsit,” he says. “Foxhall village is about changing the housing supply. The vast proportions of people who work in Blackpool don’t live here. In the town you can rent a bedsit or buy a guest house but there’s nothing much in between.”

On another side of town, Julia Seaton is looking at a laminated newspaper clipping which she keeps on her desk at the Kensington Foundation, a charity which tackles poverty in Blackpool.

A child peers mournfully out of the page. The article is about child poverty in the town at Christmas. Another photo pictures a kid with his face pressed up against a shop window, looking at toys behind the glass. “This is ten years ago,” says Julia, manager of the foundation. “And we’re still here.” The town has 29.5 per cent child poverty, with this figure rocketing up to 50 per cent in some wards.

The Kensington Foundation works on the frontline of Blackpool’s poverty problem. “People call us up to tell us they have no furniture, no food or no money. We can sort them out within one week. If it’s really dire, we can sort them out within a day,” Julia says.

She agrees that a lot of people in the town are living in low-quality housing. But she thinks another problem is a shortage of jobs. “During the [holiday] season, there’s part time work but now The Illuminations [the town’s festival of lights] are finished, some people will be out of work until Easter.”

Jane Hugo also thinks employment is a key issue. Jane is the CEO of Streetlife, a charity which helps young people in the town who are struggling with homelessness, unemployment, health issues or benefits.

To lift its deprived areas out of poverty, Jane says, “Blackpool needs to attract businesses, provide opportunities for work and equip young people with the relevant employability skills.”

Talbot Gateway Central Business District is the one major development scheme which is attempting to bring more jobs to Blackpool. It is a glass monstrosity, home to the new council offices and a giant Sainsbury’s, but its 30,000 sq ft of retail space sits mostly empty. Although there is talk of a “major gym” moving in and a restaurant set to open soon, the promise of hundreds of jobs is yet to materialise.

As two household names – B&Q and Burton’s Biscuits – announce redundancies in the area, patience is running out. Locals worry where all the people, moving into the new developments, are going to work.

“I think Blackpool needs both [jobs and houses]” says Steve Matthews. But he believes the tourism industry in the town does employ a lot of people. However, in 2014, 41 per cent of Blackpool’s employed, were only in part-time work.

Blackpool Council was not available to comment on whether they were prioritising housing over jobs. But Foxhall is not the council’s only new housing project. In February the first resident moved into Queens Park, another new housing site, designed to replace the town’s only high-rise buildings.

Rik is optimistic about the town’s future: “Blackpool is more popular than people give it credit for. I have two kids and there’s always loads going on. There’s the tower, the Ferris wheel. It’s beautiful here. It might be a bit tacky but there’s a market for that.”

Blackpool has an immense amount of problems to overcome; high unemployment, low life expectancy and low achievement in school, among. But what’s really driving the regeneration efforts is not the council’s push for housing, but the way residents feel about the place. People love it here. They’re ready to stick by Blackpool in its darker days. 

“When people write bad things about Blackpool, they forget about the lovely parts,” says the Kensington Foundations, Julia. “There are many. There’s a lot of lovely people and a lot of lovely parts to Blackpool.”